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Anarchy in the Business School

Anarchist theory is on the rise in a surprising corner of Britain's universities...

Thomas Swann
10 December 2014
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Think about where anarchism is talked about on university campuses. Aside from student activism, what comes to mind first is probably departments like anthropology or political science, perhaps also geography, philosophy or history. These academic disciplines have often involved discussions of the pros and cons of the radically democratic and egalitarian practices that make up contemporary and historical anarchist movements.

The most prominent anarchist writer at the moment, David Graeber, comes from anthropology, and research groups such as the Anarchist Studies Network have typically focussed on political theory and historical examples including the anarchist revolution during the Spanish Civil War. In recent years, research on anarchism, often done by anarchists, has become more visible in these fields.

But what about the business school? Is that where one would expect to find discussions on anarchism taking place? Probably not; and yet this is precisely where such discussions are taking place. Well, not all business schools of course – many remain committed to the central role of the business school in training, both practically and ideologically, the next generation of managers of capitalism – but certainly a few.

The University of Leicester School of Management, for example, has seen a growing interest in anarchism and radical politics more generally over the last few years, hosting debates and seminars on the topic. And this is not, to be clear, an attempt by jaded and cynical academics to capitalise on the sexiness and edginess of the word. This is about people taking anarchist theory and practice seriously as a way of organising society.

To understand why, and indeed how, this is happening, it’s important to have a look at how management studies has changed over the last two decades. In the early 1990s a group of management academics began to talk about the idea of a ‘critical management studies’. Drawing on various influences including left-wing politics, the critical theory of the Frankfurt School of sociology and poststructuralist philosophy, critical management studies was to take management and business as phenomena that exist in the world and that ought to be approached in the same way a geographer would natural or built landscapes, or a political scientist would voting tendencies. Management and business are things people do, in all aspects of life, not just profit-seeking businesses. They are also things people have done to them.

In the UK, this turn to critical management studies was brought about in part by successive cuts to funding for social sciences and other disciplines that led to an exodus of academics entering the expanding and comparatively well-off business schools.

It is in this context then that anarchist research has come to find an unlikely home in business schools like the University of Leicester School of Management (other departments hosting critical management research and teaching include Essex, Copenhagen, Manchester, Cardiff, Lund and Louvain, to name but a few; there are also hundreds if not thousands of critical management scholars scattered throughout mainstream departments). As anarchistic practices such as consensus decision-making and the general assembly have come to characterise contemporary social movements, so too has interest in anarchism in business schools grown.

While there has been a flurry of activity, focussed around Leicester, over the last couple of years – culminating in the publication this month of a special issue of the journal ephemera entitled ‘Management, Business, Anarchism’ (a play on the MBA degrees that are coming to typify mainstream management education) – a concern with what anarchism can bring to the study of management and organisation has been present for some time.

British anarchist writer Colin Ward described the radically democratic and egalitarian practices of anarchism as seeds beneath the snow: they always exist under the surface of capitalism, waiting to converge and make their green shoots visible, as they have done in cases like the Spanish Civil War, the alterglobalisation movement, the uprisings of 2011 or indeed the current resistance of Kurdish militias in Syria and Iraq.

While anarchism pops up as a term here and there in critical management studies, it is in the work of authors such as Martin Parker, Valerie Fournier, Christopher Land and Patrick Reedy that it has, in the last decade or so, come under serious consideration in terms of what it can offer to those studying management, business and organisation with a critical eye.

Parker – in his book Alternative Business: Outlaws, Crime and Culture – and Land – in the article ‘Flying the black flag: Revolt, revolution and the social organization of piracy in the “golden age”’ – have discussed the example of piracy as a radically alternative form of organisation, and one which shows many parallels with anarchist practice (something similarly highlighted by anarchist author Gabriel Kuhn in his Life Under the Jolly Roger: Reflections on Golden Age Piracy). Reedy, in an article on anarchism and utopia, draws on anarchism as a ‘powerful counter-discourse to the managerial vision of the good life’. Fournier, along with Parker and Reedy, wrote the Dictionary of Alternatives, a book which discusses a number of the radical influences on critical management studies, anarchism among them.

The ongoing work in and around critical management studies on anarchism continues along these lines, and those who contributed to the journal issue published this month focus on alternative anarchist infrastructures, anarchist forms of work, radical readings of art and music, the protest camp, social technology and anarchist economics among others.

Bringing these contributions together is explicitly framed in the journal issue as an attempt to kick-start broader and more prolonged discussions on the potential for bringing anarchism and critical management studies together. One key element in this is the fact that the articles included are freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Indeed, ephemera is one of a growing number of journals that are rejecting the pay-to-view business strategy of the big academic publishers.

While this project might seem like a great thing in so far as it further embeds the roots of radical politics in university departments, there are of course downsides. One is that this isn’t the first time radical politics has been taken up by management theorists. In the 1970s and later there were attempts to humanise management, business and capitalism more generally by introducing horizontal organisation into the workplace (Google is a recent example of this trend).

In addition to refusing to questioning the role of the CEO or shareholder as the ultimate arbiter of decision making, profit was never distributed and many have noted that this was simply a new form of authoritarian management that did little to change the power structures of work and resulted in fact in oftentimes more intensive working patterns. This and individualistic, right-wing libertarian approaches to anarchism are things those involved in the project have been keen to distance themselves from, and often explicitly critique.

Another issue raised in a discussion on anarchism and critical management studies at the Anarchist Studies Network conference, held at Loughborough University in September 2014, was whether in addition to anarchism having something to offer critical management studies, critical management studies has anything to offer anarchism.

While some critical management scholars present were sceptical, several activists who took part in the discussion were more enthusiastic, pointing out that not only do business schools often have the experience and academic knowledge to help activists frame debates about organisation, debates that have very real practical consequences in contemporary social movements, but also the material resources to provide a space for such debates.

This would be an important role for those in the business schools that are sympathetic to critical management studies to play: not only researchers examining both anarchist critiques of mainstream management and business and their alternatives, but also engaging with activists in radical social movements. With student recruitment to business schools still firmly focussed on graduate careers in middle management and entrepreneurship, it’s unlikely that they will ever become the hotbeds of campus radicalism other departments have been in the past.

But this doesn’t mean that critical management scholars and others working on anarchism as a radical form of democratic and egalitarian organisation can’t involve themselves in political struggle. Whether it’s the ongoing dispute between university employers and staff in the UK over pay and pensions, or in broader struggles outside the university campuses, a key litmus test for connecting anarchism and critical management studies will be whether it can go beyond a line of academic inquiry and form a part of the critical theoretical and practical work that is central to movements pushing for social change.

The work done over the last few years in business schools like the University of Leicester School of Management, work of which the ephemera special issue is reflective, is intended to be the start of a process not only of carving out a niche for anarchism in critical management studies but of aligning academic and activist concerns and identifying the role of anarchist research in radical political movements.

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