The Business of Bullshit

Bullshit business is about the meaningless language conjured up in schools, in banks, in consultancy firms, in politics, in the media and, of course, in thousands of business schools releasing MBA-certificated managers who are then spreading the meaningless managerial buzz-word language of bullshit business around the world. Bullshit business can indeed take over organizations crowding out their core purpose – profit-maximization. When pro-business academics, management writers, CEOs, and upper-level managers invent bullshit language, they fabricate something that sustains Managerialism. While ideologically supporting Managerialism and capitalism, bullshit business also just gets in the way of the proper functioning of a business, a corporation, and ultimately capitalism. If business bullshit and its banal language were removed, corporations might even improve their real bottom line. Yet despite being rather counterproductive, Managerialism clings on to bullshit business.

The historic origins of bullshit business and its pathological language lie in Kroning and AT&T’s management “guru” hired to change the AT&T corporation. A management guru is someone named so by people who can’t spell “charlatan”. Others call them “witch doctors”. In the case of AT&T’s bullshit business, it was Russian mystic George Gurdjieff introducing an entire new set of bullshit language. Managerialism’s language has indeed led to a lot more management meetings as everything takes twice as long.

It is true that Kroning may have been killed off while Kronese has lived on. Nonetheless there are powerful forces behind bullshit business. Like Managerialism, the bullshitter has a lack of connection or concern for the truth – as if truth had ever been relevant for corporations and corporate management. True, bullshitters are not concerned that their grand pronouncements might be illogical, unintelligible or downright baffling. All they care about is whether people will listen and whether they can persuade them that corporations are good, management is legitimate and capitalism is the best system on earth. And this even though life expectancy in the USA – a truly capitalist country – has declined for the second consecutive year.

Meanwhile bullshit business jargon is also used as a linguistic barbed wire fence, which stops unfortunate amateurs (that is us) from trespassing on territory already claimed by experts (managers and business school professors). “That’s bullshit” indeed puts up a barbed wire fence. It not just blocks conversations, it also blocks critical thoughts about bullshit business protecting business, corporations, and capitalism as such. Consequently, many of the managerial practices are not adopted because they work, but because they are fashionable and they ideologically legitimize corporations. Ever since its invention, the bullshit merchant or management consultant can find a lucrative trade in any large organization. Managerialism thrives on this while management consultants rake in large fees as workers are “downsized” – to use another managerial buzzword.

At the same time, business schools remain one of the key drivers behind the process of bullshit business. The predecessor of bullshit business is David Graeber’s well known concept of “bullshit jobs”. These are jobs in which people experience their work as utterly meaningless, contributing nothing to the world and they think they should not exist? Not just in business schools but also in private industry, Managerialism has serious impacts when deans of business schools, university presidents – not yet called “CEOs” – and real CEOs flourish on bullshit business.

Aligned to bullshit business and Managerialism, all the managerial image enhancement has one economic impact: the CEOs’ pay went up. Large CEO pay cheques and golden parachutes have a very serious economic impact – inequality rises on a global scale. Even the otherwise extremely business friendly Fortune Magazine admitted recently that the pay gap between the average worker and CEOs stands at 271 in 2017, announcing “Top CEOs Make More in Two Days Than An Average Employee Does in One Year”.

An almost classical example of bullshit business is Nokia’s “Hello There” story of 2014. It remains one of the perfect examples of what Managerialism euphemistically calls organizational life – a true bullshit business term often taken on in the blissful unawareness that most of human life takes place outside of organizations while organizations, or better workplaces are all but deprived of life. The Orwellian bullshit business term “organizational life” is designed to camouflage the fact that for-profit corporations and companies hardly provide a livable space. Beyond that, “organization” sound so much nicer than corporation. The term corporation carries negative connotations to unwanted realities such as, for example, profits, the ruthless destruction of life on earth, etc. Perhaps’s cynicism is the best one can hope for on “organizational life”. Organizational life might boil down to what has been described in the BBC’s “the office”, The Living Dead – Switched off Zoned Out, The Shocking Truth about Office Life, Organizational Pathology: Life and Death of Organizations, and the by now classical study on the Moral Mazes – The World of Corporate Managers.

A much less recognized example of bullshit business occurred in Helsinki where a costly merger of three educational institutions (a business school, a technical school, and a design school) was driven by the analogy of the “Nordic MIT”. Finland’s top educational managers might have been Victims of Groupthinking. They might have also been victims of Managerialism believing their own ideology. Nordic MIT and similar hallucinations occur because of the prevalence of marketing and PR (public relations and propaganda) inside formerly research and teaching oriented institutions that once deserved the name “university”. As macro-level neoliberalism and micro-level Managerialism took hold, universities became PR institutions ruled by public relations managers creating what has been called a PR-university’. All too often, these are driven by top-managers with kitschy MBA certificates on their walls.

While MBAs learn bullshit business jargon in business schools, those on the receiving end of the Managerialism double-speak merchant are coerced into what ultimately results in ‘silence is the best policy’. Workers under the regime of Managerialism are forced to adhere to an old feudal policy: when the great lord passes by, the wise peasant bows deeply and farts silently. In the corporate workplace, it becomes: when the great CEO or one of his top managers pass by, the wise worker bows deeply and farts silently. In almost all business schools, in many management textbooks and crypto-academic articles on business, those at the receiving end of all this – the workers – are not just forgotten but all too often deliberately eliminated from public view.

As workers are disregarded or perhaps discarded, other themes are ideologically reframed. Just as standard management textbooks prefer the Orwellian Newspeak term “organization”, profits (Oldspeak) have been replaced with “shareholder value” (Newspeak). Whenever anti-democratic authoritarian management regimes need to vanish into rhetoric’s thin air, Managerialism’s henchmen prefer the word “bureaucracy”. Exchanging management with bureaucracy whenever convenient might make Cicero’s disciples happy while protecting managerial domination. However, management double-talk rarely enlightens one about the true state of workplace affairs often governed by a top-heavy bureaucratic apparatus. Despite the widespread stories about the decline of bureaucracy, we have actually experienced an explosion of bureaucracy.

Originating from the French Jean Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay (1712-1759), bureau or office actually means a system of government in which most of the important decisions are taken by state officials rather than by elected representatives. It does not mean an overblown managerial apparatus that runs today’s corporations operating in the profit mode. It means public administration for a greater good, namely the state. What bureaucracy also does not mean is a self-serving management elite narrowly focused on ROI – return of investment and the real bottom line. Transferring bureaucracy into the world of business and management makes the ugly “C”-words (corporations and companies) disappear. With it also disappears the company’s historical origin found in the con-pane, the bread sharing mercenaries – hired killers. With the bullshit business language of organizations and bureaucracy, the harshness of the profit maxim vanishes as Managerialism borrows heavily from democratic institutions and state bureaucracies. Much of this aids the appearance that lower level administrators are the problem – not those who govern them, i.e. top-management and CEOs. Very often, the very opposite is the case.

When stabilizing Managerialism as it is often done by business schools, the task is to infuse new MBAs with the latest managerial buzz- and “weasel worlds”. Set apart from corporate reality, it is not at all surprising to find that many management ideas are cooked up far from the day-to-day realities of a workplace. Generally, management ideas are designed without having much to do with day-to-day workplace realities. Far from workplaces, bullshit business buzz-words have a rather different task. Often, they are specifically not invented to be reflective of management and work. Instead, they fulfill what ideology sets out to achieve:

1) Camouflaging contradictions (e.g. workers and management have different interests on wages, working time and general working conditions);

2) cementing domination (e.g. the domination of management over workers); and finally,

3) the prevention of emancipation (e.g. by obscuring the true affairs of work through, for example, putting up a smokescreen called bullshit business).

Far above the harshness of the neoliberal workplace, bosses continue to demand loyalty from their subordinates while those at the top get the lion’s share of rewards. Down the line, a global bureaucracy has created a huge number of bullshit jobs, such as PR agents, corporate lawyers, and a supportive cohort of pro-business writers in the corporate press and business schools. The central mission of many bullshit managers is to create a vast and apparently unbroken complex of rules and regulations which increasingly infiltrate all of our lives. The bullshit job list also includes CEOs, top managers and business school professors. Perhaps American writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Upton Sinclair hit the nail on the head when noting, it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!

Creating bullshit business and its adjacent language remains the job of upper managers and a vast ring of ideologues surrounding corporations, ranging from lobbying camouflaged as think-tanks to employer associations, to the so-called business press, PR agencies, business school academics, and neoliberal economists. They provide the “right”(!) atmosphere for business, corporations, capitalism, and managerial regimes. In workplaces, office workers are managerially controlled, supervised, monitored, watched, assessed and measured by KPIs, the infamous key performance indicators. It is not workers but managers who are responsible for complex sets of rules and regulations. In the corporate world of business, however, these are no longer called rules and regulations – they are now called corporate policies, mission statements, and the like.

Such a top-down engineering of corporate bullshit policies, KPIs, mission statements, etc. has rather negative consequences for workers. Not only do you have to spend your time answering emails, sitting in meetings, and update your LinkedIn page as well as your next performance review, now you also need to spend time trying to optimize the way you process the bullshit that rains down on you from the top. This puts a double burden onto workers in the form of bullshit time, e.g. wasted time satisfying the upper echelons of Managerialism, and real working time, e.g. doing your job. Beyond that, many workers complain about the stratospheric increase of sitting in often rather useless meetings. The sheer endless amount of Dilbert cartoons and internet-transmitted jokes about management meetings tells one as much.

Concurrently, Managerialism’s bullshit business not just wastes an employee’s time sitting in management meetings but much of middle-management’s work is also artificially made busy through attending meetings, reviewing other people’s work, maintaining good relationships with co-workers and upper management through informal conversations, feed the administration machine through various form filling, and putting together proposals and propositions for new projects and funding. Worse, some workers are annually forced into re-applying for their own positions. In those cases, HRM’s internal labor market is driven to extremes by upper-managers hooked on the systemic and structural casualization of the workforce often camouflaged as being part of strategic management or restructuring or some other fashionable bullshit business. Beyond that, much of this legitimizes upper management as they organize the entire recruitment and selection process from job analysis to position descriptions, advertising the position, creating short-lists, holding job interviews, etc.

More often than not, many of these activities are done to feed the upper-management apparatus by sustaining its existence as many of these activities, like form filling, even when online, aren’t really necessary for the administration of a company. They are necessary for the acceptability of upper-management, the chain of command, the hierarchies and the controlling rules it has established. In short, it feeds the behemoth of Managerialism. Many at the top of the managerial pyramid who remain true believers of management fundamentalism see those at the bottom of Fayol’s infamous “chain of command” in the following way: you’re just a sheet of paper. While this sheet of paper might appear to be bullshit business, in managerial reality, it reduces workers to a figure on Kaplan and Norton’s “balanced scorecard”.

Whether employees are denigrated to human resources and assigned an individual profit indicting number on an (often not really) “balanced” scorecard or Xcel-file for the purpose of performance management, they are forced into line – a line invented and handed out by management. Under neoliberalism’s deregulation of formerly protective work rules and the deliberately created demise of trade unions, this occurs increasingly in a “my way or the highway” approach. In any case, you can be cynical about management bullshit all you want in private, but in public you need to pretend you are signing up. Workplaces under the rule of Managerialism are never really the “public”. Quite often, these are authoritarian workplaces without democracy.

These workplaces are reflective of a mixture of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. Managerialism mixes Orwellian style some animals are more equal than others” with Big Brother style workplace surveillance. Workers deliver scripted behavior and “Impression Management”. On a much more sophisticated and perhaps even slightly philosophical note, what occurs inside managerial regimes might be reflective of Baudrillard’s “Simulacra”. Many workers no longer really partake in management bullshit. Instead, they merely simulate. Working in today’s companies becomes mere simulation. And this remains so irrespective of “Working With the Corporate Psychopath” or not.

Of course, it is not only ordinary office workers who are drowning in shit, Managerialism or bullshit business has entered universities as well. This is so ever since Managerialism came to universities as the German army came to Poland. As a consequence, for example, plans for a new building for an international center for democracy and conflict resolution were cancelled in favor of a new building for the business school. The much believed “we live in a democracy” ideology conveniently camouflages the democracy to business move. An awareness that huge chunks of our lives are excluded from democracy: our educational systems, our schools, and of course our workplaces, is eliminated from our imagination. Terms like workplace or industrial democracy have all but disappeared. Google.Books gives the impression that industrial democracy died a slow death sometime during the 1970s. It has effectively been eliminated from the public domain and even more so from academia. Industrial democracy is no longer taught at universities.

Bullshit business also helps to assure that in the managerialized university, teaching and research have been replaced by the classical insignia of Managerialism with league tables, beauty contests, rankings and “impact factor fetishism” as the crown king of scholarly achievement. What counts in universities as in business schools are the routinely undergone brand-building and brand-refreshing exercises each time there is a change of deans or a new cohort of management consultants is hired. This is an activity spiced up with the eternally performed treadmill of business restructuring. In any top-heavy university apparatus blown up by Managerialism, the number of administrators has increased rapidly while the number of academics has stayed relatively flat. When the managerialist university is “Selling Students Short”, it does so with more managers and less academics. Meanwhile, the real work no longer means doing research and teaching and other things a university is supposed to do. Rather, the real work has become dealing with bullshit to make universities appear more business-like.

Virtually the same happened, for example, in Britain’s National Health Service: there was an 87 per cent increase in the number of managers, whereas the number of clinical staff rose by about a third. This may be bullshit business but all this has something to do with neoliberalism, Managerialism, Maggie Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the Austrian aristocrat Herr von Hayek’s neoliberalism. Under the managerial university, people like Albert Einstein and Alan Turing are all but useless as they do not “publish a lot” nor do they rake in external, i.e. corporate funding. Certainly, in the case of Alan Turing, they might not even help in creating the right image of a university. Today, what matters is the external presentation – the eternal beauty pageant ever since a few second-tier journalists of a middle-level outfit called “USA Today” invented university rankings during lunch -or so the story goes.

Eccentrics like Alan Turing may well be the people who once told the truth but in today’s university their reputation is on the line and so are their jobs. Today, university management will “performance management you out of here” if you do not measure up. The case of London’s Imperial College and Stefan Grimm has shown so pointedly. In other words, reality reaches well beyond the fact that business bullshit took precedent over anything vaguely resembling the truth – it can kill people. Bullshit business in the form of Managerialism has very serious consequences reaching far beyond mere lips-service.

It is certainly on the mark to note that relying on bullshit means organizations do not get to the root of the issue. The very same can be said about business schools. They too do not get to the root of the issue. Their ideological task is to camouflage the negatives of business, corporations, and capitalism. For them bullshit business is very much a mixed blessing. Blessed is the managerial bullshitter. In a reminiscence of avoiding what American philosopher John Rawls once called the “veil of ignorance”, one should never be ignorant to what lies behind bullshit business. Some of this is shown in Schrijvers’ most exquisite ‘The Way of the Rat’. Interestingly, one shouldn’t forget key bullshit business terms such as PR’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) and business ethics. Bullshit business has been with us for some time now and the indications that it will leave soon are slim. Bullshit business supports capitalism and Managerialism. Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. In the case of bullshit business, this seems pretty much on the mark.

Andre Spicer’s book Bullshit Business was published in 2018 by Routledge.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of German Conspiracy Fantasies.