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Corporate Bullshit

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Business bullshit is about the meaningless language conjured up in schools, in banks, in consultancy firms, in politics, and in the media. This language drives thousands of business schools. It is this language that is handed down to MBAs. It releases MBAs happy to spread the managerial buzz-word language of business bullshit. When pro-business management academics, management writers, CEOs, and other upper level managers invent bullshit language, they fabricate something that gets in the way of businesses.

The historical origins of business bullshit and its pathological language came with Kroning and AT&T’s management guru, who was hired to change the AT&T corporation. According to Colvin’s Fortune Magazine obituary of Peter Drucker, Drucker once said a management guru is someone named so by people who can’t spell charlatan. In the case of AT&T’s business bullshit, it was the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff and his ideas that introduced an entire new set of bullshit language to management.

It might certainly be true that Kroning may have been killed off while Kronese has lived on. Management charlatans like Gurdjieff, even when changing just one company (AT&T), may have had an global impact. It contributed to managerial bullshit language. Bullshit language is part of an ideology that is used to legitimise and stabilize capitalism. Ideologies are not concerned with the truth. Instead, they are designed to eliminate contradictions and stabilize domination. Hence, the managerial bullshitter has a lack of connection or concern for the truth.

Needless to say, it is true that bullshitters are not concerned that their grand pronouncements might be illogical, unintelligible and downright baffling. All they care about is whether people will listen to them. Their jargon can become a linguistic barbed wire fence, which stops unfortunate amateurs from trespassing on territory already claimed by experts. Not surprisingly, one finds that many managerial practices are not adopted because they work, but because they are fashionable. And the bullshit merchant can find a lucrative trade in any large organization.

These are what anthropologist David Graeber called Bullshit Jobs. These are jobs in which people experience their work as utterly meaningless, contributing nothing to the world and they think should not exist. Those in managerial bullshit jobs use image enhancement had had one economic impact: the CEO’s pay went up. Even the otherwise extremely business friendly Fortune Magazine had to admit recently that the pay gap between average workers and CEOs stands at a whopping 271%.

As macro-level neoliberalism and micro-level Managerialism took hold, universities became marketing/ PR institutions with their presidents not yet called CEOs. Undeterred, they create what is calls a PR university. What is happening is the conversion of universities based on research and teaching into PR driven marketing institutions driven. The managerial PR university focuses on Fleck’s Impact Factor Fetishism. While MBAs learning and making use of business jargon, those on the receiving end of the Managerialism-speak merchants are coerced into what ultimately results in silence is the best policy. Meanwhile, workers under Managerialism are forced to adhere to an old feudal policy: when the great lord passes by, the wise peasant bows deeply and farts silently. Today, it is: when the great CEO passes by, the wise worker bows deeply and farts silently. All too often those at the receiving end of all this, i.e. workers are not just forgotten but deliberately eliminated from the public.

Aligned to this is the fact that despite the widespread stories about the decline of bureaucracy sclerosis, we have actually experienced an explosion of bureaucracy. We have seen an explosion of management mutating into Managerialism. When seeking to stabilize Managerialism, as is often done by business schools, their next task is to infuse new MBAs with the latest managerial buzzwords and weasel worlds. Set apart from corporate reality, it is not at all surprising to uncover that many management ideas are cooked up far away from the day-to-day realities of a workplace. Many management ideas are not designed to have much to do with the day-to-day realities of management. Far from workplace reality, business bullshit buzz words have a rather different task.

A notable example that seeks to achieve the task set out by ideology, is bosses continue to demand loyalty from their subordinates while those at the top get the lion’s share of rewards. Not surprisingly, bosses rake it in big time. Meanwhile Managerialism creates a huge number of bullshit jobs, such as PR agents and corporate lawyers. The central task of bullshit managers is to create a vast and apparently unbroken complex of rules and regulations, which increasingly infiltrate all of our lives. Meanwhile, rafts of business schools professors are ready to be the PR agents of corporations. Perhaps American writer and Pulitzer Prize winner, Upton Sinclair, hits 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 business bullshit and its language has never been the job of workers. It remains utterly the job of upper-level managers. 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 of rules and regulations. These govern us – those who need to work. And indeed, corporations, companies, business and even business schools love deregulation as it takes the state out of the equation. Taking out the regulative capacity of the state means opening up an unregulated space. This allows managers to re-regulate such spaces. As a consequence, we find incidents of macho-management. Just as the old saying goes: Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

More and more workers spend time answering emails, sitting in meetings and updating your LinkedIn profile they are also required to spend time trying to optimize the way workers process this bullshit. This acts as a double-edged sword for the workers in the form of bullshit time: 1) wasted time satisfying the upper echelons of Managerialism and 2) real working time, e.g. doing your job. Beyond that many workers complain about the stratospheric increase of sitting in often useless meetings. The sheer endless number of internet-transmitted jokes about meetings tells one as much.

Worse, some workers are annually forced into applying for their own jobs. In those cases, human resources (HR) management’s internal labor market is driven to extremes by upper-mangers. Being hooked on Managerialism often means being hooked on the systemic and structural casualization of the workforce often camouflaged as being part of strategic management and being flexible. Beyond that, it legitimizes upper management as they organize the entire recruitment and selection process from analyzing jobs, positioning job descriptions and advertising the position to creating short-lists and holding actual job interviews. More often than not, many of these activities are done to feed the management machine.

Many at the top of the managerial pyramid who believe in management fundamentalism see those at the bottom of Henry Fayol’s chain of command(1916) in the following way, you’re just a sheet of paper. This sheet of paper might appear to be business bullshit. However, management likes to condense workers’ contributions and working lives to a sheet of paper called balanced scorecard.Whether employees are denigrated to human resource assigned an individual profit indicting numbers on an (often not really) balancedscorecard or Excel file for the purpose of performance management, they are forced to toe the line. This is a line invented and handed out by upper management. More often than not, this occurs in a my way or the highway’ approach.

Being forced into the lockstep mode of management  means you can be cynical about management bullshit all you want in private, but in public you need to pretend you are signing up. These are authoritarian workplaces without democracy reflective of 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. Management critiques have labeled this Impression Management.

On a slightly more philosophical note, what this means might be reflective of French philosopher Baudrillard’s Simulacra. Many workers no longer really partake in management bullshit. Instead, they merely simulate signing up. 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. It is the key theme of universities and business schools. As Don Watson once said “Managerialism came to universities as the German army came to Poland.”

One set of academic staff experienced these effects as plans for a new building for an international center for democracy and conflict resolution being cancelled in favor of a new building for the business school. The more we are made to believe that ‘we live in a democracy’, the more it seems it is taken away from us. Terms resembling workplace democracy and industrial democracy have been extinct. Google.Books suggests industrial democracy has become severely eroded since 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. In the managerialised university, teaching and research have been substituted by the classical insignia of Managerialism. Now it is university league tables, beauty contests, rankings and the aforementioned impact factor fetishism – the crown king of scholarly achievement. What counts in universities as in the business school itself is the routinely undergone brand-building and brand-refreshing exercises each time there is a change of Deans or a new cohort of management consultants being hired. This is an activity spiced up with the eternally performed treadmill of business restructuring.

In any university apparatus inflated by Managerialism, the number of administrators has increased rapidly while the number of academics has stays relatively flat. When the managerialist university is Selling Students Short it does so with more managers and fewer academics. Meanwhile, the real work is no longer 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.

Eccentrics and math genius, Alan Turing for example, may well be the people who told the truth but in today’s university their reputation is on the line and their jobs too. 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 this. Business bullshit in the form of Managerialism has many more serious consequences, reaching far beyond mere lip service. Much of this has been so exquisitely described in Schrijvers’ The Way of the Rat. Interestingly, business bullshit terms such as corporate social responsibility (CSR) and business ethics are part management bullshit. Business bullshit has to do with power, capitalism, Managerialism and the ideology that legitimizes management.

Andre Spicer’s Bullshit Business is published by Routledge Press.

More articles by:

Thomas Klikauer is the author of Managerialism (Palgrave, 2013).

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