Management, Research & Masquerades

“But what if effectiveness is part of a masquerade of social control rather than a reality? What if effectiveness were a quality widely imputed to managers and bureaucrats both by themselves and others, but in fact a quality which rarely exists apart from this imputation?


The word that I shall borrow to name this alleged quality of effectiveness is ‘expertise’. I am not of course questioning the existence of genuine experts
in many areas: the biochemistry of insulin, historical scholarship, the study of antique furniture. It is specifically and only managerial and bureaucratic expertise that I am going to put in question. And the conclusion to which I shall finally move is that such expertise does indeed turn out to be one more moral fiction, because the kind of knowledge which would be required to sustain it does not exist.

But what would it be like if social control were indeed a masquerade? Consider the following possibility: that what we are oppressed by is not power, but impotence; that one key reason why the presidents of large corporations do not, as some radical critics believe, control the United States is that they do not even succeed in controlling their own corporations; that all too often, when imputed organizational skill and power are deployed and the desired effect follows, all that we have witnessed is the same kind of sequence as that to be observed when a clergyman is fortunate enough to pray for rain just before the unpredicted end of a drought; that the levers of power – one of managerial expertise’s own key metaphors – produce effects unsystematically and too often only coincidentally related to the effects of which their users boast.

Were all this to be the case, it would of course be socially and politically important to disguise the fact, and deploying the concept of managerial effectiveness as both managers and writers about management do deploy it would be an essential part of any such disguise. Fortunately I do not need to establish as part of the present argument precisely what it is that is being disguised in order to show that the concept of managerial effectiveness functions as a moral fiction; all that I need to show is that its use presupposes knowledge claims which cannot be made good, and further that the difference between the uses to which it is put and the meaning of the assertions which embody it is precisely similar to that identified by the emotive theory in the case of other modern moral concepts.

The mention of emotivism is very much to the point; for the thesis which I am presenting about belief in managerial effectiveness parallels to some degree the thesis advanced by certain emotivist moral philosophers Carnap and Ayer – about belief in God. Carnap and Ayer both extended the emotive theory beyond the realm of moral judgment and argued that metaphysical assertions more generally and religious assertions more particularly, while they purport to give information about a transcendent reality, actually do no more than express the feelings and attitudes of those who utter them. They disguise certain psychological realities with religious utterances. Carnap and Ayer thus open up the possibility of providing a sociological explanation for the prevalence of these illusions, although they themselves do not aspire to furnish one.

I am suggesting that ‘managerial effectiveness’ functions much as Carnap
and Ayer supposed ‘God’ to function. It is the name of a fictitious, but
believed-in reality, appeal to which disguises certain other realities; its effective use is expressive. And just as Carnap and Ayer reached their conclusion principally by considering what they claimed was the lack of the appropriate kind of rational justification for belief in God, so the core of my argument is the contention that interpretations of managerial effectiveness in the same way lack the appropriate kind of rational justification.

If I am right in this, the characterization of the contemporary moral scene will have been taken one stage further than my previous arguments took it. Not only will we be justified in concluding that an emotivist account is both true of, and embodied in, a very great deal of our moral utterance and practice and that much of that utterance and practice is a trading in moral fictions (such as those of utility and of rights), but we shall also have to conclude that another moral fiction – and perhaps the most culturally powerful of them all – is embodied in the claims to effectiveness and hence to authority made by that central character of the modern social drama, the bureaucratic manager. To a disturbing extent our morality will be disclosed as a theatre of illusions.

The claim that the manager makes to effectiveness rests of course on the
further claim to possess a stock of knowledge by means of which organizations
and social structures can be molded. Such knowledge would have to include a set of factual law-like generalizations which would enable the manager to predict that, if an event or state of affairs of a certain type were to occur or to be brought about, some other event or state of affairs of some specific kind would result. For only such law-like generalizations could yield those particular casual explanations and predictions by means of which the manager could mold, influence and control the social environment.

There are thus two parts to the manager’s claims to justified authority. One concerns the existence of a domain of morally neutral fact about which the manager is to be expert. The other concerns the law-like generalizations and their applications to particular cases derived from the study of this domain. Both claims mirror claims made by the natural sciences; and it is not surprising that expressions such as ‘management science’ should be coined. The manager’s claim to moral neutrality, which is itself an important part of the way the manager presents himself and functions in the social and moral world, is thus parallel to the claims to moral neutrality made by many physical scientists. What it amounts to can best be understood by beginning from a consideration of how the relevant notion of ‘fact’ first became socially available and was put to use by the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century intellectual ancestors of the bureaucratic manager. It will turn out to be the case that this history is related in an important way to the history which I have already recounted of how the concept of the autonomous moral subject emerged in moral philosophy. That emergence involved a rejection of all those Aristotelian and quasi-Aristotelian views of the world in which a teleological perspective provided a context in which evaluative claims functioned as a particular kind of factual claim. And with that rejection the concepts both of value and of fact acquired a new character.

It is thus not a timeless truth that moral or otherwise evaluative conclusions cannot be entailed by factual premises; but it is true that the meaning assigned to moral and indeed to other key evaluative expressions so changed during the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries that what are by then commonly allowed to be factual premises cannot entail what are by then commonly taken to be evaluative or moral conclusions. The historical enactment of this apparent division between fact and value was not however merely a matter of the way in which value and morality came to be reconceived; it was also reinforced by a changed and changing conception of fact, a conception whose examination has to precede any assessment of the modern manager’s claim to possession of the kind of knowledge which would justify his authority…

The expert’s claim to status and reward is fatally undermined when we recognize that he possesses no sound stock of law-like generalizations and when we realize how weak the predictive power available to him is. The concept of managerial effectiveness is after all one more contemporary moral fiction and perhaps the most important of them all. The dominance of the manipulative mode in our culture is not and cannot be accompanied by very much actual success in manipulation. I do not of course mean that the activities of purported experts do not have effects and that we do not suffer from those effects and suffer gravely. But the notion of social control embodied in the notion of expertise is indeed a masquerade. Our social order is in a very literal sense out of our, and indeed anyone’s, control. No one is or could be in charge.

Belief in managerial expertise is then, on the view that I have taken, very like what belief in God was thought to be by Carnap and Ayer. It is one more illusion and a peculiarly modern one, the illusion of a power not ourselves that claims to make for righteousness. Hence the manager as character is other than he at first sight seems to be: the social world of everyday hard-headed practical pragmatic no-nonsense realism which is the environment of management is one which depends for its sustained existence on the systematic perpetuation of misunderstanding and of belief in fictions. The fetishism of commodities has been supplemented by another just as important fetishism, that of bureaucratic skills. For it follows from my whole argument that the realm of managerial expertise is one in which what purport to be objectively-grounded claims function in fact as expressions of arbitrary, but disguised, will and preference.

Keynes’s description of how Moore’s disciples advanced their private preferences under the cover of identifying the presence or absence of a non-rational property of goodness, a property which was in fact a fiction, deserves a contemporary sequel in the form of an equally elegant and telling description of how in the social world of corporations and governments private preferences are advanced under the cover of identifying the presence or absence of the findings of experts. And just as the Keynesian description suggested why emotivism is so convincing a thesis, so would such a modern sequel. The effects of eighteenth-century prophecy have been to produce not scientifically managed social control, but a skillful dramatic imitation of such control. It is histrionic success which gives power and authority in our culture. The most effective bureaucrat is the best actor.

To this many managers and many bureaucrats will reply: you are attacking a straw man of your own construction . We make no large claims, Weberian or otherwise. We are as keenly aware of the limitations of social scientific generalizations as you are. We perform a modest function with a modest and unpretentious competence. But we do have specialized knowledge, we are entitled in our own limited fields to be called experts.

Nothing in my argument impugns these modest claims; but it is not claims of this kind which achieve power and authority either within or for bureaucratic corporations, whether public or private. For claims of this modest kind could never legitimate the possession or the uses of power either within or by bureaucratic corporations in anything like the way or on anything like the scale on which that power is wielded. So the modest and unpretentious claims embodied in this reply to my argument may themselves be highly misleading, as much to those who utter them as to anyone else. For they seem to function not as a rebuttal of my argument that a metaphysical belief in managerial expertise has been institutionalized in our corporations, but as an excuse for continuing to participate in the charades which are consequently enacted. The histrionic talents of the player with small walking-on parts are as necessary to the bureaucratic drama as the contributions of the great managerial character actors.”

After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre, 1981, pp.75-78, 106-108

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