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Existential struggle and surplus value: Hugh Willmott on managerial subjectivities

By Peter Armstrong


Paper for presentation at the Conference of Practical Criticism in the Managerial Social Sciences, Leicester University Management School, January 15th - 17th, 2008.This paper examines the ‘reconstructed’ labour process approach to the analysis of management which is set out in Willmott (1997). In that paper, Willmott takes the view that both the ‘bourgeois’ pluralist approach and that of ‘orthodox labour process analysis’ are deficient, the first because it neglects the primacy of the capitalist social relations of production and the second because it reduces the work of managers to an execution of the economic functions of capital. In their place he proposes a theorization in which the capitalist social relations of production are articulated through managerial subjectivities and in which those subjectivities, through a search for meaning and identity, react to the commodification of managerial labour in such a way as to incline managers against the prioritization of capital accumulation. The result, so he claims, is a theory which recognizes that the work of managers is conditioned by their position in the social relations of production but which avoids the tendency towards structural determinism which he finds in orthodox labour process analysis..\ud Despite his best efforts, Willmott’s trawls through some of the major workplace ethnographies produced by 20th century social science reveal no evidence of the search for existential significance on which his theory hinges. Instead, and as if it were a substitute for such evidence, he repeatedly berates the authors of these studies for their failure to produce any. Beyond that, his depiction of managerial subjectivities depends on an implausible and empirically unsupported presumption that managers react to the surveillance and control of their work by rejecting the purpose behind those controls. This supposed mass disaffection of the managerial cadre is then represented as consequential for the capitalist social relations of production by the theoretical expedient of re-imagining these as nothing more than a contingent regularity of social interaction.\ud \ud Most of the difficulties of this theory, and most of the misreadings of ethnographic research adduced in its support, stem from the logical impossibility of the position which Willmott attempts to take up. Between an indiscriminate pluralism which fails to recognise the primacy of the capitalist social relations of production and a Marxist/ labour process approach which does, there is simply no intermediate position. Unwilling to recognise this, Willmott seeks to create one by constructing a parodied version of ‘labour process orthodoxy’ in which managers are depicted as doing nothing but perform the functions of capital. It is into this imagined space that he seeks to insert his own theory of a managerial contrariness driven by a proletarianisation of their conditions of employment. The ironic result is a labour process approach to management which neglects the role of managers in controlling the labour process.\ud The paper concludes with a brief suggestion that a better theory both of managerial practices and managerial subjectivities can be constructed by recognizing the contradiction between the roles which managers play within the labour process and the role which they play as the agents of capital in the extraction, realization and allocation of the surplus values created by that labour process. The one requires the establishment of co-operative relationships, in the ordinary way at least, whilst the other depends on the treatment of labour as a commodity. Many of the tensions and anxieties experienced by managers in the course of their work, it is suggested can be traced to this contradiction between co-operation and exploitation (or complicity in exploitation) rather than some universalized search for existential significance. Although by no means original, such a theory has at least the merit of accommodating the surely undeniable fact that most managers accede to the controls to which their work is subjected rather than rebel against them

Year: 2008
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