A glossary of exploitive economics: 'Lean in' and 8 other bad business buzzwords that should be phased out
The near future is more likely to be a neoliberal dystopia than the tech-enabled utopia conjured up by big business, writes Peter Fleming in The Worst Is Yet to Come: A Post-Capitalist Survival Guide. He argues that we need “radical pessimism” to aim for the future we actually want, and aids the effort with sardonic humor that skewers the mythologies of our exploitative economic system.
In 1949, the right-wing economist F. A. Hayek published an essay entitled “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” which aimed to change the way capitalism thought about itself. Up until then, he argued, it was mainly the socialists who had claimed the intellectual space of utopianism.
Hayek sought to rectify this. Free-market conservatives ought to come up with their own utopias and sell them to the public as glorious futures to come. Capitalist individualism and a minimal state were prominent components, elevated like secular gods.
As with most utopian blueprints, however, when put into practice, the outcome was frequently appalling. Yet these failures didn’t stop the power elite from trying again, no matter how many casualties fell along the way. That’s why capitalism today consists of an uneasy confluence of brazen destructiveness and implacable self-confidence, convinced that we will soon be approaching a Panglossian Best of All Possible Worlds.
The problem is that the worst is yet to come. We therefore require a good understanding of the ideological terrain upon which that struggle will unfold. Most importantly, we won’t necessarily see the clean death of neoliberalism but an exaggerated and unsustainable deepening of it. It will then buckle under its own weight, yielding a windswept post-capitalist dystopia ... if nothing is done to counteract it now.
Mainstream economic theory might first appear rational and objective, especially given its clinical quantification of human behavior. The mathematical models and algebraic theorems add to the veneer of scientificity. But beneath the numbers is an unyielding and often mysterious faith in the rectitude of monetary individualism. That conviction is conveyed in buzzwords and fads, many of which have entered daily life, and will only intensify in the next few years. We require a counter-lexicon. Towards that end, here is my take on some of the key features of the bad business utopias that are busy colonizing the future.
Artificial Intelligence: Machine learning and robotics that soon may be capable of reflective cognition, with much attention focusing on work and employment.
Automation of production has defined capitalism from the start. As has the fear (or hope) that machines will soon replace most of the workforce. The application of Artificial Intelligence in the “second machine age” will center on routine cognitive work (e.g., accountants and airline pilots) and nonroutine manual jobs (e.g., care providers, drivers, and hairdressers). However, this is where fantasy enters the picture. Namely, capitalism without laborers, a dream that is integral to neoliberal economics. In reality, AI will probably follow the same path as previous waves of automation: mechanizing certain parts of a job rather than replacing it entirely, especially the skilled part that affects wages. Moreover, the old Keynesian point still holds: Workers are also consumers. Thus, the disappearance of labor would also eliminate consumption, which is integral to capitalism. That might not be a bad thing, as advocates of “fully automated luxury communism” suggest. However, a bleaker scenario is possible. The retention of a highly polarized and class-based society (as we have today) but without labor or consumption, given the widespread application of AI. This would represent a kind of inverted rendition of capitalism. High-tech and primitive. This model of society has no name yet, but something like “Blade Runner Capitalism” might suffice.
Corporate Social Responsibility: A concept designed to spread the fallacy that corporations can be driven by profit-maximization and have a positive ethical role in society; a disavowal of the key contradictions of capitalism; an idea closely associated with other disingenuous terms such as “conscious capitalism” and “green capitalism.”
Milton Friedman famously argued against Corporate Social Responsibility. Focus on profits, he said, and let the state and churches deal with human welfare. However, CSR became popular nevertheless and is now big business. Almost every corporation has a CSR program of some kind. The concept is fundamental to neoliberal utopianism because it peddles the falsehood that capitalism can be both ruthlessly profiteering and kind to the planet. Have its cake and eat it too. As a corollary, governmental regulation is deemed unnecessary. CSR provides an excuse for corporations to regulate themselves, and we all know where that leads. It is no surprise that CSR is most visible in controversial industries like mining, oil and gas, arms manufacturing and tobacco (often involving glossy brochures and websites depicting happy African children playing in green rainforests). Moreover, the tax benefits enjoyed by billionaire philanthropists are another good reason they like CSR.
Game Theory: The use of mathematics to model human reality; one of the more bizarre offshoots that followed the mathematization of economic thought in the 20th century.
Game theory focuses on strategies used by competing actors to make rational decisions. What should I do given my opponent may subsequently decide A, B, C, or D? It was pioneered by John von Neumann, John Nash, and Oskar Morgenstern. The assumption that social life is a game of logic between conniving actors is foundational to this view of economics. But do we really behave in such a “me versus you” manner? Game Theory’s rational individualism closely resonates with neoliberal capitalism because it reconceptualizes everyone as mini corporations who are totally selfish. Individuals compete rather than share; seek to outsmart the next person rather than empathize. Proponents of the approach often use the “as if” defense. The model might not perfectly match reality, but we can approximate how someone behaves in the real world by assuming they act “as if” they’re Nashian plotters. It’s the normative assumptions underlying this “as if” that are problematic … that at bottom we’re all greedy and impatient bankers. One could just as well argue that people act “as if” they’re trusting and altruistic socialists, but Game Theory won’t have any of that.
Human Resource Management: An ultra-corporate manifestation of business management; a practice informally called “Inhuman Resource Management” by workers.
Even the very phrase Human Resource Management sounds weird, like something dreamed up by extraterrestrials who plan on harvesting mankind. The objectification is important to understanding HRM. In the old days, most large organizations had personnel departments. They dealt with payroll and hiring. In the 1980s and 1990s, this role slowly focused in on the nature of the employee. Testing potential recruits.
Developing employee engagement programs to revive flagging morale and so on. However, the covert agenda was to replace unions, who had previously fulfilled these functions. As neoliberalism spread through the economy like wild fire, HRM became a tool for pathologizing the recalcitrant employee. Rather than view the unhappy worker from a structural perspective (i.e., low wages, unfair treatment, boring job), it was their personality that was singled out as a problem. Following the financial crisis, HRM has become the punitive arm of organizational power. Their main role is to undermine unions, protect employers from discontented workers and enforce financial miserliness.
Leadership: The assumption that when humans organize they require top-down control and only special individuals are capable of doing this; the valorization of elitism.
When social actors are encouraged to behave as capsulelike monads—as they are under neoliberal capitalism—then some kind of extra-individual steering mechanism is soon required to avert chaos. In the workplace, this could include workers’ councils. At the societal level, a democratically elected government. But capitalists naturally distain those options and evoke the mythology of leadership instead, sold to us as great men and women who’ve been blessed with amazing skills. To understand this bizarre veneration of elitism, we might recall Max Weber’s argument about charismatic leaders. These individuals function as supplements to market rationality rather than replacements, which is why fascism was so attracted to the idea. The economic system can have bourgeois individualism and an overarching, CEO-like führer at the same time. The conflation serves to ward off social democratic solutions to economic coordination.
Lean In: Faux-feminism for the corporate age; an attempt to render feminism business-friendly; what feminism looks like after patriarchy wins.
Radical gender politics is dangerous to capitalism because it rallies against the patriarchal structures essential to it. In many ways, neoliberalism is a male-driven horror show. However, identity politics has severely diluted that radicalism and finally made feminism palatable to the establishment, including the multinational corporation. Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook’s chief operating of officer) is the end product of that betrayal. Sandberg gives advice to her readers about how to be both a woman and ruthlessly ambitious in the corporate world. Capitalism and the multinational corporation are all taken for granted, and feminism becomes a matter of women landing a seat in the boardroom and getting rich.
Moral Hazard: The cynical belief that you will automatically behave irresponsibly if not held accountable for your actions, especially in terms of financial responsibility; a moral pretext for demolishing the public sphere; the belief that everyone is a feckless opportunist.
The concept of moral hazard originated in insurance economics. It argues that once people are protected by insurance (say home and contents) they’ll automatically engage in riskier behavior than normal (leaving their homes unlocked, for example). The theory assumes that people are not only stupid but have no sense of civic responsibility. The rationale has been deployed by neocons to lay ruin to the welfare state. Unemployment insurance incentivizes work avoidance. Public health care encourages unhealthy lifestyle choices, etc. We could follow the rationale reductio ad absurdum: public fire brigades shouldn’t be funded because they inadvertently encourage people to be careless in the kitchen, and might result in them burning down their homes.
Office Email: An electronic communication system that has become ubiquitous among the modern workforce; an instrument for spreading wage-theft and unpaid overtime; something 50 percent of the workforce now “check” outside of office hours.
What is colloquially called the “tyranny of email,” started life as a cool invention by Ray Tomlinson in 1971. With the birth of the internet, email rapidly replaced memos and postage. In the workplace, it was meant to make life easier. However, smartphones turned this tool of convenience into a slave master, since the office is always there, in your pocket. Not so long ago, management consultants used to say they loved flying because only then could they turn off their phone. Now even that respite has disappeared, as Wi-Fi coverage is included in most methods of travel. Email fits so snugly into the neoliberal order because it exemplifies individual mobility. You’re always switched on no matter what. Work and life merge. Self-exploitation becomes rife. But does email improve your productivity on the job? One study decided to find out. A large office was deprived of email access for a day and its productivity levels actually soared. Therefore, not only does the “tyranny of email” increase our workload and render us permanently exposed to the supervisor’s gaze, it also hinders our ability to get things done, making life harder for no obvious reason.
Tax Avoidance: How corporations and rich plutocrats sidestep the taxes that you and I have to pay; a mechanism for increasing wealth inequality to levels unheard of in the modern era; a method for starving the public sphere of cash; what greed looks like in the end times.
Neoliberalism has always hated tax, especially corporate tax. Trickle-down economics assumes that low taxes incentivize employers to hire more workers, invest and grow. Instead, firms usually keep the extra equity and get richer. Building on that sentiment, corporations have devised an elaborate international system to facilitate tax avoidance, with the help of countries like Ireland (the “Double Irish”) and Holland (the “Dutch Sandwich”). Corporations are taxed on profits rather than revenue. They can therefore artificially reduce these profits by setting up a parent company in Ireland, for example, and then a subsidiary in, say the UK, which is charged steep licensing and administrative fees. This is how Google can enjoy yearly sales in the UK of £1.03 billion yet post a pretax profit of £149 million, with a tax bill of £36.4 million. Some firms might even record a “loss” (despite healthy revenues), then use the “Double Irish” with a “Dutch Sandwich,” and pay no tax whatsoever. Combined with shadow banking, transfer pricing, trade mis-invoicing and tax havens, here we see where neoliberal capitalism is heading in the end times. The ultrarich—and their phalanx—floating above the state as the public sphere shrinks and society descends into disorder. Moreover, it is precisely here that neo-feudal social structures make a comeback, linked to family oligarchies and their tremendous influence over governments, bypassing the democratic process.
This excerpt is from The Worst Is Yet to Come: A Post-Capitalist Survival Guide by Peter Fleming. (Repeater Books 2019). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.