Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Mindless managerialism is intended to slow down social change?

So here's a left-wing article by David Graeber, who turns out to be an anarchist professor and occupy protestor in London. He argues technology hasn't produced the flying cars and moon bases we were promised in the 1950s because capitalism is being throttled by managerialism and timid bureaucracy:

And so a timid, bureaucratic spirit suffuses every aspect of cultural life. It comes festooned in a language of creativity, initiative, and entrepreneurialism. But the language is meaningless. Those thinkers most likely to make a conceptual breakthrough are the least likely to receive funding, and, if breakthroughs occur, they are not likely to find anyone willing to follow up on their most daring implications.

Marxists like Frederic Jameson and Ernest Mandel had pondered what the new technological age of capitalism would mean in the 1960s and 1970s. What if factories were automated and technology solved many ordinary problems? 

End of work arguments were popular in the late seventies and early eighties as social thinkers pondered what would happen to the traditional working-class-led popular struggle once the working class no longer existed. (The answer: it would turn into identity politics.) Jameson thought of himself as exploring the forms of consciousness and historical sensibilities likely to emerge from this new age.

Alvin Toffler argued from the right that there needed to be controls on the pace of change.

The only solution, Toffler argued, was to begin some kind of control over the process, to create institutions that would assess emerging technologies and their likely effects, to ban technologies likely to be too socially disruptive, and to guide development in the direction of social harmony.

Partially as a result, instead of investing in robot factories, corporations preferred to invest in cheap labor instead in places like China. And they focused on more incrementalist technology, or defense contracts. Corporations and governments became uncomfortable with socially disruptive technological innovation.

The upshot was we got less daring incrementalist and consumerist technologies , iPhones instead of rockets ships.

And now we have, Graeber says, a culture of cautious managerialism. Innovators spend their time in universities doing administration and applying for grants, the author says. (Yale apparently refused to put him up for tenure.) Capitalism cannot innovate any more, or produce "poetic technology", he claims.

About one conclusion we can feel especially confident: it will not happen within the framework of contemporary corporate capitalism—or any form of capitalism. To begin setting up domes on Mars, let alone to develop the means to figure out if there are alien civilizations to contact, we’re going to have to figure out a different economic system. Must the new system take the form of some massive new bureaucracy? Why do we assume it must? Only by breaking up existing bureaucratic structures can we begin.

I find it curious that a leftwing author is attacking bureaucracy. Then again, one doesn't often come across a real, live anarchist (although some extreme libertarians are not so different, come to think of it).

And it is odd to see someone arguing the US has a particular problem with corporate rigidity. True enough, the US has its share of mindless managerialism. But it is still more enterprising and less corporate as a rule than France or Germany or Russia.

The article has a strange nostalgia for failed Soviet technological dreams. It just doesn't hang together. All the same, at some point I'm going to have to grapple with more post-Marxist arguments, for completeness and intellectual honesty. I'm even planning to watch David Harvey's famous video series on Marx at some stage.

It may be true that some areas of technology have slowed down, even if the Internet has had a vast impact. We mentioned Tyler Cowen's ideas on that score some time ago on the blog. All the same, this kind of vague pronouncement about the "final stage" of capitalism just annoys me.

(h/t AI Daily)




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