Friday, 18 December 2015

Corridors of power

For what will probably be my final post of the year I return, as no doubt I will many times next year, when it is likely to be held, to the UK Referendum on EU membership. For those interested in the global economic context of organizations, but also in the way that decision making happens in both politics and organizations, the current ‘renegotiation’ is fascinating.
The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, is seeking to renegotiate the terms of UK membership so as to be able to recommend to the British people that they vote to remain in the EU. The terms he is seeking, even if achieved, will not in any way change the minds of those in his own party and beyond who are implacably opposed to EU membership. And although I disagree with their opposition, they are absolutely right to see the renegotiation as a charade. Even if it succeeds, it will not in any substantive way change the terms of membership. So what is it about?
The answer is that it will enable Cameron to say to his party and voters that a deal has been struck that they can support. The more there seem to be huge difficulties and conflicts over getting the deal, the better it will be in terms of making that case. This is widely understood within the political class, the media and informed observers. So the only way that it can be successful is by its appeal to those undecided and/or only mildly anti-EU voters not following events closely and who only tune in during the run-up to the referendum (currently widely expected to be held in June 2016). They will hear that there has been a fundamental change and – if things go to plan – will vote to stay in.
Since I am strongly in favour of Britain’s membership of the EU I hope this works. But it is a risky and in many ways unsatisfactory strategy. It’s risky for two reasons. First, if Cameron doesn’t get even the limited deal he is seeking it won’t have much credibility. Second, it’s by no means guaranteed that those voters it is designed to appeal to will hear this message, rather than that of the campaign to exit. But it’s unsatisfactory because it repeats the errors of the past in failing to make a positive case for EU membership, and just trying to bamboozle a semi-detached electorate into making a half-hearted choice.
Outside of the government, the embryonic campaigns are both, to varying degrees, in trouble. Neither is as yet a single organization (although that will change when the Electoral Commission identify and fund the campaign groups). The ‘in’ campaign is dominated by Lord Rose’s (former head of Marks and Spencer) rather dull, accounting approach, stressing the benefits of membership for businesses, although something more sparky and populist is offered by Alan Johnson’s leadership of the Labour Party’s campaign. And the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, remains at best lukewarm on British membership, a major danger for the ‘in’ campaign. Meanwhile the ‘out’ campaign is openly wracked by conflict between rival groups, a key issue being the extent to which Nigel Farage, the populist but divisive anti-immigration leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) will figure. Just today, UKIP’s only MP suggested that Farage should stand down as his party’s leader.
As readers of this blog will know, I was recently in Paris and whilst there had several conversations with people who expressed bemusement at the fact that this debate was even happening in Britain, and certainty that the outcome would be a vote to stay in. I am not sure that this is true, or at least that the vote will be decisive enough to prevent the question to continue to be raised. Opinion polls suggest that the result will be very close, although there is an interesting divide between internet polls (suggesting a close result) and telephone polls (suggesting an easy win for the stay in campaign). This may reflect the fact that the anti-EU movement (at least as regards UKIP) has a very well-organized online presence, and that views within the general population are rather different. It also seems likely that, unsurprisingly, the answer depends on how the question is asked.
Leaving aside the EU issue, I’m struck by how much of this has parallels with how decisions get made in organizations. Often there is a small group of highly involved and committed people on different sides of the argument, and a larger group of more or less uninterested or ambivalent people. Similar techniques are used of taking decisions and discussions to various forums and then bringing them to other bodies to make a final decision, with all the detail having been decided elsewhere. It is a perennially fascinating process about which much has been written in the organization studies literature. But, to bang on about another of my hobby horses, nowhere more insightfully than in the novels of C.P. Snow such as his 1964 masterpiece Corridors of Power.
As I said earlier, I will for sure be returning to these issues in 2016. In the meantime, a very Happy Christmas and New Year to all those reading this blog.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Bitter chocolate

At one point in the book on which this blog is based, I discuss the chocolate firm Cadbury’s as an example of how the ‘new capitalism’ works:
“This was a firm with a history dating back to the nineteenth century and marked by a strong interest in worker welfare. In 2009 a hostile takeover bid from Kraft, a giant US food corporation, was rejected but subsequently, in 2010, a deal was agreed. The deal generated an estimated £240 million in fees for the investment banks and advisers involved. One especially controversial aspect is that Cadbury’s had had plans to close its factory in Somerset and move production to Poland, but Kraft undertook that this would not happen if they took over. However, after the takeover the factory was closed in favour of the Polish location, and amongst the hundreds laid off were families who had worked for Cadbury’s for decades. So here a workplace rooted in a history and a community was eviscerated. Is this just ‘the way things are’? No, because such situations arise from particular regulatory regimes and, as the former chairman of Cadbury’s has argued, the UK regulation of overseas takeovers is especially lax.” (p.106)
My point here was about the fracturing of links between organizational ownership, communities and places. But this connects with another issue, also mentioned briefly in the book (p.118) but more extensively on this blog, namely corporate taxation. For it has now emerged, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Cadbury’s under its new owner Mondelez International, a spin-off of Kraft, paid no UK corporation tax last year. This was not because it was unprofitable (Cadbury’s made £96.5M profit in 2014) but because it used a complex, albeit perfectly legal, device to avoid paying the tax. Briefly, the tax liability was avoided using interest payments on an unsecured debt, listed as a bond on the Channel Islands’ stock exchange, which were then offset against the profits made leading to a zero corporation tax liability.
The use of tax avoidance techniques such as these is widespread. Facebook, Starbucks and Amazon are amongst high profile cases and the recently announced 'reverse takeover' of Pfizer by Allergan is another variant. Here Pfizer – the bigger firm – is formally being taken over by the smaller one, allowing it to headquarter the new entity in the lower corporate tax regime, in this case the Republic of Ireland; so-called tax inversion. These techniques link to the wider issue of organizations and localities because they reflect the freedom of companies to locate globally and the absence of any legal or for that matter normative commitment to any particular country or community.
The problem here is not – or not simply – one of abstract morality. It is that corporate tax avoidance leads to the erosion of the tax base. It is remarkable that with so many countries pursuing policies of fiscal balance there is so much more attention paid to government spending than to government revenues. Yet what the OECD refers to as Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) has become a major problem, especially in the developing world leading to a set of proposals for reform being presented to the G20 last October. The OECD initiative, and that of the EU, may in time have an impact (although in the case of the EU proposals they have, depressingly, been rejected by the UK). However, it is equally likely that corporations and their advisers will find new ways to circumvent these rules, and in any case I am not clear that they would have any traction in cases such as Cadbury’s. One problem here is that both national, and these new transnational, rules are immensely complex and it is that very complexity which gives rise to new loopholes.
Apart from legal and regulatory changes to the tax system, the only other game currently in town is consumer action and boycotts. There is some evidence that these can be effective, with Starbucks responding to a UK boycott threat by moving its headquarters to London in 2014, although it has been questioned whether this really made much difference to tax revenues. In any case, such an approach is only ever going to be applied to a few high profile cases. How many consumers will, or could, apply pressure to all the corporates involved in tax avoidance? It’s difficult to imagine many users of Viagra boycotting its maker, Pfizer, to protest against the abstruse-sounding tactic of reverse takeover to facilitate tax inversion!
Whether through changing tax laws or exerting consumer pressure, both these approaches suffer from the fact that they are after the fact attempts to address problems arising from the fracture of ownership and places, especially countries. Thus I continue to think, as implied in the extract from my book that I quoted earlier, that the more important issue is the regulation of international mergers and acquisitions. We can’t put the genie of globalization back in the bottle but there are pragmatic and eminently workable ‘glocalized’ approaches to organization.
It is already the case that takeover rules in Germany, say, are far tougher than in the UK. One consequence of this is the strength of the Mittelstand – medium-sized, often family-owned, businesses – that are the bedrock of German manufacturing and exports. These are firms which are plainly local, and maintain a strong link between ownership, community and employment. Yet this is not an ‘anti-globalization’ argument for the Mittelstand is most certainly global in its clientele. A combination rather like Cadbury’s, in fact, in the days before it was taken over.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Three years on

A rather inward-looking post today. It’s now about three years since this blog started and at this time in previous years I have taken a look at how many people are viewing it and where from (for last year’s report see here). Overall, there have been 17,800 page views since the blog started, up from 7,055 this time last year meaning there have been over 10,700 views this year. In the last month there have been 985 views compared to 364 in the equivalent month last year. So it seems as if the audience is increasing, although it is also the case that I have posted more often this year (40 this year so far as compared to 24 in 2014).
The countries from which people view are shown below (with last year's figures in brackets). Overall it is a similar mix to last year (China has dropped out of the Top 10, Sweden come in), but the United States now tops the chart.

United States (2)
4608 (1761)
United Kingdom (1)
3830 (2206)
Russia (7)
965 (198)
France (6)
871 (209)
Norway (4)
751 (243)
Ukraine (3)
688 (350)
Ireland (8)
646 (147)
Germany (5)
501 (216)
Netherlands (10)
315 (98)
Sweden (-)
190 (-)

 The rising US readership seems to be linked with the fact that by far the most-read post now (846 unique page views) is Reviewing Organization Studies, posted on 3 July 2014 and most of its readers are US-based. I’m guessing that someone in the US organization studies community linked to it. In some ways I slightly regret this as mostly in this blog I try to write about the wider world rather than focussing on narrowly academic matters. But I am certainly not complaining.
Last year I also looked at some of the online reviews of the book, and amongst the new ones this year, I’m particularly amused by this one, posted by ‘smallkids’ on Amazon, which is almost a Haiku:
“HI grey
The words are too small
BUt thx as it is cheap”
And particularly pleased by this one, posted by ‘M Bal’, also on Amazon:

“The author provides a critical overview of organisational theory that is accessible to all who might be interested in the topic, not just academics. He follows a historical perspective in a way that makes approaches to the study of organisations both digestible and contextualised in their contemporary cultural and social ideas. This facilitates the development of a critical perspective on the views of how organisations are "best" managed today in order to stimulate further thought and reflection that could translate to meaningful practice for those possessing some influence in their organisation. Some (introductory) familiarity of organisational theory and management are likely to be beneficial prior to reading the book”.
Overall on Amazon there are 7 reviews of the third edition, averaging 4.4/5 and 14 reviews of the second edition, also averaging 4.4.
Whether any of this is even fairly interesting to anyone but me I don’t know, but it’s not just reasonably cheap but free, and at least the words aren’t too small. At all events, many thanks to those of you reading this blog, wherever you may be reading from.

Friday, 20 November 2015

The joy of escapism

In the hope of lightening the mood compared with my previous post, and indeed with the increasing darkness of the current news agenda, today I offer something completely different. At the risk of slight personal embarrassment I want to share with readers of this blog some things I have written for a very different blog, namely the World of Blyton. This is one of a number of sites devoted to the life and work of the British children’s author Enid Blyton.
Although sometimes derided for her writing skills and criticised for her sexist, racist and classist descriptions, Blyton was the best-selling children’s author of the twentieth century and is still the all-time eighth best-selling writer of fiction. Anyway, I’m not particularly concerned to try to defend or attack her reputation. For me, it’s mainly just that I read her books as a child and so they retain a cosy and comforting feel. In this way they are indeed an antidote to and escape from current events. For that matter, I find a certain magic in re-reading many other authors I read as a child. And, more generally, I think that re-reading is underrated. I routinely re-read novels (less so non-fiction) and gain much from it. Occasionally, with really special books, I re-read them immediately I finish them, a recent example being Allan Massie’s stunning moral meditation A Question of Loyalties. Some novels, such as those of C.P. Snow, I have read perhaps a couple of hundred times without tiring of them.
Anyway, back to Blyton. On my World Of Blyton contributor page you will find some eleven posts written between 2014 and 2015. Most are book reviews, one explains why I love re-reading her work, one is about how reading her books in translation has helped me learn French and one – my favourite – is a silly joke that I can’t begin to summarise here.
Is there any connection to organization studies? Well, yes there is. Some years ago I wrote a book chapter (Grey, 1998) about the ways that organization is represented in traditional children’s literature. I focussed on three series of books: Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings series and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series. It has sunk almost without trace, but the argument was that such books are an aspect in socializing children into how the organizational world works. In the case of the Famous Five series, I suggested that it offered a template of the patriarchal group.
I think that there is some mileage in that argument, but the truth, of course, is that I wrote the chapter as a way of writing about some books that I loved, just as I did for Snow's novels (Grey, 1996), academic journals being more forgiving in those days. I also love, and occasionally re-read, the works of P.G. Wodehouse, of which in 1961 Evelyn Waugh said: “Mr. Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in”.
That sentiment captures my own feeling about Wodehouse, and Blyton and all the others. Escapist it may be, but from time to time as the guns fire and the bombs explode a little escapism is nothing to be ashamed of.

Grey, C. (1996) 'C.P. Snow's Fictional Sociology of Management and Organizations', Organization 3 (1): 61-83.

Grey, C. (1998) ‘Child’s Play: Representations of Organization in Children’s Literature’ in Hassard, J. & Holliday, R. (eds) Organization/Representation: Work and Organizations in Popular Culture. London: Routledge, pp. 131-148

Wednesday, 18 November 2015


I don’t think that I need to provide a link to reports of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris; no one can fail to be aware of them, and appalled by them. For me they have a personal resonance. My wife was born and spent most of her childhood in Paris, and we were married there. My mother-in-law watched Nazi troops marching into Paris in 1940 and saw them leave in 1945, having lived through the Occupation with false papers that disguised her Jewishness. Nowadays, I am a Visiting Professor at Université Paris-Dauphine and visit regularly; in fact I will be there next week. More specifically, my nephew was in a bar on Rue Caron when it was attacked by the gunmen last Friday. He was not hit, but his best friend was shot in the chest, and is still in intensive care, and that friend’s sister was shot in the arm. These were just ordinary twenty-somethings on a night out.
There is so much that could be said about this, and so much that already had been said, that it seems almost pointless to say more. I tend to be quite hawkish about the military and security responses that should be made, but I have no particular knowledge or insight to offer into that. What I do feel clear about is that the massive, predictable surge of responses saying that this shows the failures of multi-culturalism need to be challenged.
Let’s be absolutely clear: those who committed this atrocity are the most ferocious mono-culturalists imaginable. For them, there can and should be no integration and no variety: there is only one true way, derived from a cretinous reading of Islamic scripture. They are the exact mirror image of the ‘Christian Conservative’ Anders Breivik. By contrast, no-one ever shot or blew up another human being in the name of multi-culturalism or of pluralism.
So far as any strategic logic (as opposed to simple hatred) can be discerned in the attacks, it is to hope that it will provoke a punitive reaction against European Muslims so as to say, to some of them at least, that their punitive treatment demonstrates that Muslims cannot be part of the European Polity.
We ‘ordinary people’ can do very little, caught as we are in the cross-fire of two monocultural ideologies. Very little, but not nothing. We can, and should, continue to insist at every opportunity that multi-culturalism is not something to be denied or apologised for, but a cardinal value to be argued for and if necessary to die for.
We dishonour those killed and injured on an ordinary night out in Paris if we take from what they suffered an ideal of separation. Worse, if we do so we honour those who killed and injured them.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Trading places

This week, the Indian Prime Minister visited the UK just a couple of weeks after the Chinese President did the same. Both were sumptuously hosted, but the main events were trade deals. In between the two visits, though much less reported, the UK-Brazil Joint Economic and Trade Committee (JETCO) met in London.
This in itself tells us something about the global world economy. Whilst of the BRICs Russia’s relations with the UK remain frosty, for complex political reasons, the other three countries in this admittedly artificial bloc are being actively wooed by the Britain and many other countries.
This gives, in part at least, the lie to the repeated claim by those who want Britain to exit it that EU membership precludes the signing of trade deals. In part, because it is of course true that the UK cannot negotiate deals with third parties that would give EU single market access. But that should be good news for Eurosceptics since, were it possible, it would also be possible for any member state to do the same and thereby commit the UK to trade deals it had had no input into.
And these deals also reveal something else. They are predicated in large part upon UK membership of the EU. The Chinese President – in a highly unusual intervention – made it clear during his visit that his country saw trade relations with the UK in terms of the EU, and urged against Brexit. The Indian PM was entirely unambiguous in saying that he saw the UK as India’s “entry point into the EU”.
The Brexiters’ idea that outside the EU there would be a queue of countries lining up to sign preferential trade deals is quite clearly nonsense, as the US have made clear. And any notion that the Commonwealth would be the locus of a new trade bloc is equally preposterous. Australia and Canada have made that clear and the fact that India’s visit to the UK came after visiting 28 other countries speaks volumes. This isn't any longer the world of Imperial Preference.
What did interest both China’s and India’s leaders was something quite different to trading with the UK post-Brexit. Both were concerned about the restrictions put upon visas to visit, work and study in the UK. All these – like the Brexit debate – have got caught up in the British panic about immigration, which is doing real damage, both economic and cultural, to the UK. International students are increasingly turning their backs on British universities as a result. But Brexit also matters to British universities, and this week they came out and said that it would be a catastrophe.
The over-arching debate in all this is not simply about Brexit, it’s about a realistic understanding of what the world is, and the UK’s place within it. These recent events underscore, like it or not, the realpolitik of that place. And it certainly isn't where Brexiters think it to be.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Hooked on classics

Organization studies has a peculiar relationship with history, including its own history. On the one hand, it routinely invokes woefully inadequate claims about history (new eras, unprecedented developments and so on). On the other hand, it makes ludicrous claims about its own history - the narrative of scientific management giving way to human relations theory (discussed in the book) being an obvious example. On the third hand, it ignores and is ignorant of history, so that many a supposedly cutting-edge research paper simply replicates, without any awareness of so doing, things that have been known for decades.
These failures are not, at least as regards the first and second cases, necessarily meaningless. They reflect, in part anyway, the ideological operations of organization studies as a handmaiden of managerialism, suggesting, in the first case, that there is an underlying logic that justifies managerialism and, in the second case, that managerialism is part of a specifically progressive logic. In other words, what is by scholarly standards bad history is not simply understandable in terms of bad scholarship.
But what about the third case? Here I think that there at least four factors in play. One is that those conducting research in organization studies (myself included) are often not trained in that discipline, but in something else, such as economics, sociology, anthropology, or, as in my case, politics. Thus there is less sense of a socialization into a canon than might be the case. That is changing, as more people come through an organization studies training, but that may not make much difference because of the other factors. These are, first, that the notion of a ‘classical canon’ is anathema to the postmodern sensibility that has been influential in recent organization studies, at least in Europe. Second, that because most organization studies takes place in business schools, which are typically culturally in thrall to the new, classic studies are easily dismissed as old hat. And, third, because the pressure to publish supposedly novel contributions – especially ‘theoretical’ contributions – disinclines researchers to seek out or admit to the classical roots of their discipline.
Yet against that background, I have a sense that things are beginning to change. Consider, for example, John Hassard’s (2012) superb analysis of the Hawthorne Studies, adding significant historical flesh to the point in my book (p.41) about the continuities and interconnections between ‘scientific management’ and ‘human relations’. Or Ellen O’Connor’s (2011) re-appropriation of the lost foundations of management and organization studies.
This optimistic sense has been provoked by two things over the last week or so. One was attending a seminar by Paul du Gay where he presented his (2015) paper ‘Organization (Theory) as a Way of Life’, which not only makes out the case for re-considering ‘classical organization theory’, but also mounts a robust challenge to the metaphysical theoreticism of recent organization studies. The other was learning of an initiative by a group of doctoral students in organization studies to read and discuss classic texts. The podcasts of these discussions on the Talking about Organizations website are enthralling and sophisticated dissections of (so far) the writings of Taylor, Fayol and Maslow.
Although, of course, I would not compare my own work with that of those mentioned here, I do see it as having some affinity with what they are doing. I, too, am dismayed by theoreticism and am also seeking to re-connect with classical writings and traditions in organization studies, both in my book on the organization of Bletchley Park (Grey, 2012) and my forthcoming book on secrecy (Costas and Grey, 2016).
I am sure that many other writers, not referenced here, are trying to do something similar. I certainly hope so because although I don’t suppose the first two ways that organization studies relates to history are redeemable, the third surely is.


Costas, J. & Grey, C. (2016) Secrecy at Work. The Hidden Architecture of Organizational Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Du Gay, P. (2015) ‘Organization (Theory) as a Way of Life’, Journal of Cultural Economy 8 (4): 399-417.
Grey, C. (2012) Decoding Organization. Bletchley Park, Codebreaking and Organization Studies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Hassard J. (2012) 'Rethinking the Hawthorne Studies: The Western Electric Research in its Social, Political and Historical Context', Human Relations 65 (11): 1431-1461. 
O’Connor, E. (2011) Creating New Knowledge in Management. Appropriating the Field’s Lost Foundations. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Shaping the EU debate?

In a previous post, I mentioned my article on The Conversation website, which tried to clarify what different Brexit options would mean. It has received over 16,000 hits – apparently an unusually high number – and although I certainly can’t claim that it has shaped the debate, the points raised are beginning to be more widely discussed. Thus last the British Prime Minister spelled out that the ‘Norway model’ would not be viable for the UK.  And this week the Policy Network published a pamphlet insisting, exactly as I had in my article, that the Brexit options be differentiated.
This isn’t an arcane issue, it is the central flaw in the Brexit case. If they champion Norway (or Switzerland) as models then they can’t leverage their main populist argument of reducing immigration, because if the UK remains in the single market, even if not in the EU, then free movement of people still obtains. So, then, they have to argue for a free trade agreement model. But that position is fraught with difficulties. There is no way of knowing what the terms of such a deal would be, nor its timeframes. Moreover, it would mean exiting (and having to try to re-negotiate over unknown timeframes) the EU deals with third-party countries, and from a much weaker position since the UK market is so much smaller than that of the EU.
The US have said this week that they would not be interested in a free trade deal with the UK, and that is very significant since the same thing would likely be true of many other countries. The issue is a simple one: trade deals are increasingly between platforms and blocs rather than individual countries. China, too, is urging the UK to stay in, as is German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Meanwhile, it’s beginning to be recognized that trade and economics are not the only problems for the Brexit cause. The notion that ‘taking control of our borders’ is unproblematic is also starting to be debated. Of the many issues around that (including moving the border from Calais to the UK, and the position of Brits living in the EU), this week the position of Ireland has been raised. A full Brexit would mean creating a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, bringing with it serious problems for the still fragile peace process in Ulster.
Of course none of this makes a dent in the determination of hardcore opponents of British membership. Nothing could or will. What matters is what floating voters make of it all. At the moment, opinion is 54-46 in favour of staying in, but it is reckoned that the ‘hard’ vote for both in and out is 25%. There is much to play for still, especially as most of the ‘soft vote’ are not yet engaged with the still embryonic campaign. There is still plenty of time to reshape the debate. Watch this space as the story unfolds.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Legitimate questions

The concept of legitimacy is central to organizations in many ways, most obviously in terms of who has the right to tell others what to do, and what kinds of things this applies to. That is one reason why many books about organization studies – including mine – begin by talking about Max Weber’s account of authority (in the meaning of legitimate power).
I was thinking about this in relation to the current political row in the UK about the House of Lords’ rejection of a House of Commons policy to cut tax credits for people in work. I won’t discuss the tax credits issue itself - important as it is – it is the issue of legitimacy that I want to look at. Britain, famously and unusually, has an ‘unwritten constitution’, and so relies on custom and precedent to determine what is legitimate. In this way, it could be seen as a system based partly on what Weber called ‘traditional authority’ in contrast to the rational-legal authority of written constitutions.
Since the House of Commons is elected on the basis of, certainly, a system of rules and to this extent rational-legal, and the House of Lords is an unelected body the government have been keen to say that the Lords’ action was illegitimate. More precisely, the argument is that it is illegitimate because it violates the ‘convention’ that the Lords will not block financial legislation or legislation deriving from an elected government’s manifesto.
But convention is a rather slippery terrain. As regards tax credits, what was blocked by the Lords was not, technically, financial legislation but, rather, a ‘statutory instrument’. It’s an arcane point that needn’t detain us except to the extent that it shows the imprecision of ‘tradition’ as a legitimating principle. On the other side of the coin, the House of Commons, whilst certainly elected, has a government majority on the basis that the ruling Conservative Party achieved 36.9% of the votes cast on a turnout of 66.1% of the electorate. In other words, 24.4% of the electorate voted for them.
Moreover, although the Conservative Party manifesto promised extensive cuts to the welfare budget, it did not specify that these would include cuts to the tax credits of working people. It is at least questionable whether they would have been elected had they done so. My sense is that what the electorate thought was meant by welfare cuts was cuts to benefits of people out of work. One might say so much the worse for them, but even so the point is that democratic consent to this policy looks rather threadbare.
The imprecision of party manifestos is by no means new. For example, at the 2010 election the Conservative manifesto promised that there would be no top-down re-organization of the NHS. In government (with Liberal Democrat support) there was massive and controversial re-organization. The disjuncture became an argument about what ‘top-down’ meant. At one time these manifestos consisted of quite precise lists of policies. Now, they tend to be much vaguer. And this in turn links with a far more ‘presidential’ approach to UK politics in which the persona of the leader is the key issue, even though the ‘constitutional convention’ is that a House of Commons is elected constituency by constituency and the leader is the person who can command a majority. Thus a key aspect of the last election was which of David Cameron or Ed Miliband was the most ‘prime ministerial’. So, here, what is at stake is what Weber called ‘charismatic authority’.
This complex mish-mash of rational-legal, traditional and charismatic authority makes for plenty of political spectacle and debate. But I wonder if it does not also show the limitations of Weber’s ideal-types of authority? Isn’t it actually rather common for, say, a CEO to draw selectively and eclectically on the different types*? And more challengingly, isn’t the idea that there is a distinction of authority and power a rather dubious one? After all, whatever is decided about tax credits, those affected by or hostile to the changes will ultimately be forced to accept them.
On a more personal note, this week I was awarded the title Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences (FAcSS). This, too, is about legitimate authority – the Academy’s legitimacy to award the title, the legitimacy it bestows on me. But of course I am just shoehorning this in to make it fit with the rest of the post. The truth is that I am rather pleased and want to boast about it.

*Something like this has always been the critique of ideal-type reasoning and the defence, of course, is that these are ideal-types, for conceptual clarification rather than empirical claims. I suppose that my point is that in political debates like this one an ideal-type is treated, at least by implication, as an empirical claim.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Choice, by coincidence

The author and journalist Bill Bryson once wrote – I can’t track down the source - about how he was commissioned to write a newspaper article about amazing coincidences. Bereft of ideas, he found himself sitting at a colleague’s desk. Prominent on the desk was a large book – about amazing coincidences.
This came to my mind because of a sequence of events this week. In my last post on this blog I wrote about the limitations of choice as an over-riding principle. It’s a theme in the book, as well, where (e.g. p.75) I draw upon Barry Schwartz’s fantastic book The Paradox of Choice to talk about how choice in some strange way makes us less free, and can be burdensome and controlling.
A few days later, I went to have my hair cut (bear with me, this is going somewhere). For those who don’t know the ritual of the traditional English all-male barber’s shop it involves a usually awkward conversation about the weather, local traffic problems, and, especially, football. The latter has always been difficult for me, as I have no interest in football, but recently that has slightly changed since Crystal Palace, the team of my childhood home in Croydon, are now in the Premier League and out of nostalgia I have become (mildly) interested.
Anyway, that is by the way. Somehow, the conversation got on to the fact that the barber and his wife have taken to shopping at Aldi, a German-owned budget supermarket that has become increasingly popular in the UK. The reason they do so – and this is the interesting bit – is not because it is cheaper than the others but because there is far less choice. That, he said, made shopping much less hassle than going to the established supermarkets, such as Tesco where they used to shop.
Later that day, without seeking it out, I came across an article by Stuart Jeffries on the Guardian newspaper website, entitled ‘Why too much choice is stressing us out’, in which he reported that:
“Tesco chief executive Dave Lewis seems bent on making shopping in his stores less baffling than it used to be. Earlier this year, he decided to scrap 30,000 of the 90,000 products from Tesco's shelves. This was, in part, a response to the growing market shares of Aldi and Lidl, which only offer between 2,000 and 3,000 lines. For instance, Tesco used to offer 28 tomato ketchups while in Aldi there is just one in one size; Tesco offered 224 kinds of air freshener, Aldi only 12 …”
And, what’s more, the article goes on to analyse this in terms of Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice!
That same day I took a look at the excellent blog of my fellow, albeit rather more eminent, organization theorist Yiannis Gabriel where his latest post explained the background to the new edition The Unmanageable Consumer, a book which amongst many other things helps us to understand why consumers might not simply lap up the endless choices which marketeers assume everyone wants.
I have spent the last couple of days working on the revisions for what will be the fourth edition of my own book. It has been going well, so I am in an optimistic frame of mind. This leads me to think that, perhaps, the kinds of arguments I make are gaining traction. It surely cannot just be coincidence that all these things have happened this week? Alas, my wife has brought me down to earth by pointing out that coincidence is not what it seems. It is not even, as might be thought, the opposite of choice. Rather, it is the things that we choose to be interested in that gain our attention. It’s just such feminine realism that one goes to the men’s barber’s shop to escape, and only coincidentally for a haircut. Which reminds me, Crystal Palace are currently sixth in the Premier League.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Stuck with choice

I had a plan for today’s post, which was to go back through this blog to find where I had used various news stories to make a point and to revisit those stories asking: what happened next? As I began to do so, I found that it was a completely overwhelming task. Over the last three years I have written about under-employment, corporate tax avoidance, outsourcing, immigration and refugees, global supply chains, public sector reform, economic insecurity, pensions, corporate takeovers, air crashes, the NHS, the Greek crisis, the British establishment, the war in Ukraine, the Chinese economy and many, many other things.
So I have given up on that idea (for now) and instead will return to just a couple of things I’ve written about which are in the news again. In my post More on Power (November 2013) I wrote about the ludicrousness of consumer choice in the electricity ‘market’. Wind forward to today, and the price comparison sites that would supposedly enable such a choice are mired in scandal. In my post Pensions (March 2014) I wrote about the deregulation of personal pensions, a reform supposedly freeing up pensioners to make choices about their pension pots. Wind forward and we find that already scandals are emerging as pensioners are ripped-off or conned into making dangerous investments.
The fallacy that links both these cases (and another current story, that of the need to shop around for the best bank account) is that consumer choice is both efficient and morally impregnable. It is a logic in which corporations and consumer rights associations are complicit (see also my post on The Benefits of Work in July 2015). Choice isn’t an unqualified good.
Of course the neo-liberals are right when they point to the absence of choice as being one of the failings of State Communism. But that Cold War rhetoric doesn’t take us very far because the issue isn’t ‘no choice’ versus ‘unlimited choice’: there are degrees in between. Moreover, as these various examples show, choice in many markets is fairly meaningless. I sometimes think that market ideologues genuinely believe that ‘the market’ always and everywhere has the same form as wandering around fruit and veg stalls, looking at the quality and price of produce before buying. If so, it’s wholly unrealistic.
The reality across huge swathes of products – not just energy, pensions or bank accounts but also mobile phones, insurance or university courses – is nothing like the Economics 101 textbooks. It’s all but impossible to compare products and prices, and even if you did so once then within a few days or even minutes things would change again. Choice in these circumstances is meaningless, and the constant invocation of choice as a cardinal value is in fact an attempt to make as central the idea that we are all ‘choosers’. And the significance of that is not that it is a good thing to be a chooser, but that if choosers make the wrong choice – as some or many will - then they have only themselves to blame.
Writ large, this means that whatever happens to anyone, good or bad, is to their own credit or reflects their own fault. And so any social situation, no matter how unfair or wrong it may be, is not just unavoidable but, actually, right. This grotesque moral spoonerism is the ultimate consequence of the benign or even positive spin put upon choice.
In political philosophy, the most sophisticated expression of this valorization of choice as central is to be found in Robert Nozick’s book Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974). It is a beautifully written and intellectually elegant book that I would recommend to anyone. At its heart (as regards choice) is the ‘Wilt Chamberlain example’ (Chamberlain being a famous basketball player). Nozick argues that if before Chamberlain plays a game everyone agrees that the distribution of income in society is fair (even, say, if it is equal); and if, then, everyone who pays to watch Chamberlain play does so as a free choice; and if, then, as a result Chamberlain has more money than everyone else; then that new unequal distribution of income must also be fair, as everyone has chosen it.
There are two flaws in this argument. One is that it is only Chamberlain and those who paid to see him who have consented to the new income distribution. What about everyone else? If consent is the key principle for fairness then how can it be fair when they haven't consented? The other is that if Chamberlain and everyone who paid to see him had known that his extra income was to be taxed at 100% and redistributed, and he had still chosen to play and they had still chosen to pay, then the resultant equal income distribution would also be fair, on the logic of choice.
So choice doesn’t work, even at the most sophisticated theoretical level, as a guarantor of fairness, and it doesn’t work at the demonstrable empirical level of how choice actually works in markets. Which doesn’t mean that it is of no importance if people don’t have choices. On the contrary, choice is vital for both economic and political well-being. It’s just that it is not the only thing that matters, or the thing that matters above all else. It's not a kind of trump card that beats every other aspect of human existence.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Europe: a defining issue

Regular readers of this blog – if there are any! – will know that I am very committed to the UK remaining within the EU. With a referendum on this now certain to be held within the next couple of years, the different sides are lining up.
I am in favour of UK membership not because I think that the EU is perfect or beyond critique. It isn’t. In particular, it is very lacking in democratic structures. But the reason for that is primarily because such structures are resisted by Eurosceptics, in the UK and elsewhere, who see them as building a ‘federal super-state’. And even in its present form I see the EU as a bulwark against the hyper neo-liberalism that I believe would characterise the UK in the event of exit, and which is certainly the ambition of most of those seeking exit. Moreover, I see the EU as having knitted together, in the aftermath of both World War Two and the Cold War, a relatively stable, peaceful and prosperous continent. It is easy to forget, but in both 1945 and 1989 that prospect would have seemed very far away.
I’m also dismayed by the level of ignorance and toxicity in UK debates about the EU. Some of this is just stupid, as with the idea that the EU wants to ban bent bananas. Other times it is pernicious, as with the misguided linking of the EU and the European  Court of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights and the misrepresentation of what that Court and Convention do.
A couple of years ago I would have said that come a Referendum the UK would undoubtedly vote to stay in, and by a large margin – say 60/40. Now, I am less sure that this is so, mainly because of the, again, ignorant and toxic debates about the refugee crisis (by which I mean that being in or out of the EU would make no difference whatsoever to this crisis or to the relatively limited way that it affects the UK). If I had to guess, it would be that the outcome will still be a narrow vote for ‘in’. But that is not good enough, because without a clear result the demand for a further vote will immediately arise.
It may seem strange that in taking this view I line up with corporate and global financial voices that are also pro-EU. But there is a perfectly respectable ‘leftist’ case for staying in. And in any case my position is no less strange than those on the Left who line up with UKIP in arguing for exit. In fact, I don’t think that the EU debate is a straightforward left-right one, it is more a debate between what in another post I called ‘Cosmopolitans and Locals’. If Britain is to be a tolerant, sophisticated, multi-cultural and prosperous country then the 'cosmopolitans' have to win; if the 'locals' win then Britain will be a bigoted, fearful country permanently locked not just in a world that hasn't existed since the 1950s, but, even worse, in an idealized imagination of that world.
So, for me, this has become the defining political issue of the times for the UK. And it matters far beyond the UK since if Britain were to exit the EU it would have huge ramifications throughout Europe and beyond. I’ll be doing what little I can to persuade British people to vote to stay in, and my first efforts are a blog post on The Conversation website and a follow-up interview on BBC Radio Merseyside today (the interview starts about six minutes in to the link). But I expect to be doing much more.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Intended consequences

In the book, I make much use of the concept of ‘unintended consequences’ – the way that, in particular, rational-legal rules give rise to effects that were not only different to those intended but run directly counter to what was intended. My last post on the VW emissions scandal provided a current example.
But sometimes the situation is more complex, and I return here to the case of regulations around smoking, about which I have written in another post on this blog, and, with Jo Brewis, also written an academic paper (Brewis & Grey,2008). The latest development is that today a law has come in to force banning smoking in cars when a person less than 18 years old is present in the car. It’s by no means an objectionable law, in and of itself, because who would want to claim that smoking in a car with children is in any way a good thing?
What is interesting about this law, though, is that it is manifestly doomed to failure. Police representatives have already said that it is unenforceable, partly due to lack of resources but also because of detection problems. For example, electronic cigarettes are not included in the legislation so a police patrol would not easily be able to tell whether an offence was being committed, nor is it easy to know the age of passengers from a patrol car. Moreover, the legislation allows 17 year olds to smoke in cars if the passengers are 18, allows smoking in convertibles with the hood down, and allows smoking in caravans and motorhomes, even if children are present, so long as the vehicle are not at that point moving.
We might, then, assume that the intended consequence is to stop smoking in cars with children and that the unintended consequence is it not working. But in fact the situation is more complex. The long-term aim of anti-smoking activists is the eradication of all smoking, but they approach this goal stealthily because smoking is such a strongly culturally embedded practice. From that perspective, the failure of this latest legislation will be desirable, because when it fails it will justify a new law banning all smoking in all vehicles in all circumstances.
Social science research is sometimes criticised for lacking the predictive power of natural science, so here I will make a prediction. Within, say, five years (and I would expect less rather than more) a total smoking ban in cars will be in force. And as soon as it is, or even, possibly, before there will be lobbying for a ban on smoking in houses where children are present. Once again few will object, because no one could really mount a case that it would be good to allow it. So a law will follow, which will of course be even more unenforceable than that against smoking in cars with children. From which will ‘logically’ follow that all smoking by anyone in any house will be banned.
By that point, the situation as regards public spaces (e.g. bars) and private spaces (e.g. homes) will be identical: smoking in both is banned. So what happens then? Well, look at what is happening around the regulations on public spaces. At first, it was just indoors. Now, it is increasingly in parks and on beaches which are public spaces but outdoors, including outside pub doorways. The rationale for this is not that others might inhale the fumes, but that those (especially children) seeing it might think that smoking was ‘normal’. So, once there is a ban on smoking inside homes, it will get extended to smoking outside home, for example in gardens. In other words, as each new rule ‘fails’, that failure provides the rationale for a new rule. It is in this sense that failure is an intended consequence of regulation since it paves the way for successfully extending regulation.
With smoking now very much a minority activity in the UK and many other countries, few will shed a tear about any of this (and it’s not my intention that anyone should: I just want to provide an interesting illustration of a particular phenomenon around unintended consequences). But it’s worth reflecting that with the campaign to reduce smoking now being acknowledged as the gold-standard of public health campaigns, the same tactics are being applied to another deeply culturally embedded practice (as smoking was a generation ago), namely alcohol consumption.
As with smoking, the initial restrictions have been around advertising. Then (rather like the 1970s campaign that smokers should choose cigarettes with filters and leave long stubs) there has been the definition of safe drinking limits, which turn out to have been ‘plucked out of air’. Now, as happened with smoking, some campaigners say that there is no safe limit for alcohol, and although that is not mainstream in the way that it is for smoking it is accepted to be true for pregnant women. Meanwhile, just as there used to be a differentiation of ‘light’ or ‘social’ smokers from the hardcore we have a similar differentiation of social and ‘binge’ drinkers, with a binge drinker being someone drinking more than 3 pints of beer. The key move in anti-smoking discourse was to establish the notion of passive or secondary smoking, and the same shift has been mooted by former UK Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson, who is also responsible for the Orwellian declaration of aiming for the complete denormalization of smoking.
So here’s another prediction – as smoking fades away, restrictions on alcohol will increase along with restrictions on sugar and ever more demonization of obesity. Each restriction will give rise to failures which far from being unintended will have been designed to fail, in order to justify further restrictions. But the law of unintended consequences will still hold, and indeed it is already very clear that this is so. Because the more that unhealthy practices, such as smoking, drinking and over-eating are reduced, the more we see the degradations of dementia, of old age blighted by complex and intractable multiple illnesses, of obscure cancers that were rarely known before.
Moreover, since taxes on smoking are, massively, a net contributor to the NHS (and the same is true for alcohol) the less we smoke the more difficult it will be to fund the healthcare for the longer lives we will indubitably – for, of course, the anti-smoking campaigners are quite right to point to its dangers – be living. But that, too, is not really an example of an unintended consequence since, as Jo Brewis and I argued in our article, the real motivation of the anti-smoking movement is not public health, but the imposition of a morality about smoking that long precedes, and proceeds quite independently of, any scientific or medical rationality. They simply reproduce, in modern language, King James I's (1604) Counterblaste to Tobacco:
Have you not reason then to bee ashamed, and to forbeare this filthie noveltie, so basely grounded, so foolishly received and so grossely mistaken in the right use thereof? In your abuse thereof sinning against God, harming your selves both in persons and goods, and raking also thereby the markes and notes of vanitie upon you: by the custome thereof making your selves to be wondered at by all forraine civil Nations, and by all strangers that come among you, to be scorned and contemned. A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.