Professor Martin Parker, Director of Research at the School, challenges the arguments underpinning mainstream accounts of Business and Management within his recently published co-edited collection.
Powerful people often tell us that economic life provides us with no alternatives. Bankers must be paid sickening amounts, workers’ wages must be kept down, small organizations can’t compete, and the free market works best for everyone. In a new book entitled The Companion to Alternative Organization, I and others (including several researchers based at Leicester) argue that conventional capitalist business and economic models present a view of the world that serves the powerful at the expense of the majority.
It should come as little surprise that most people don’t trust Business Schools: they are always in danger of echoing the very beliefs and ideas that flatter and benefit their main clients. Much of the time, this means that academics, in turn, end up repeating reasons for paying managers more and workers while telling us ‘this hurts me more than it hurts you’. This all very quickly wears thin so instead, let’s briefly think about my local bakery instead.
Near where I live in Stoke-on-Trent is an old bakery. It’s been there for nearly 100 years, it has a brick oven, and it makes very nice bread. I go there quite a lot; a little too much, indeed, if the advice of my doctor is anything to go by. Anyway, about half a mile from the bakery is a big Sainsbury’s supermarket. That also has a bakery, and the bread is also quite nice, and, what is more, usually a bit cheaper. So, according the logic of the Business School, that little bakery will disappear soon, and become another one of the empty shops that line the road between my house and the supermarket. There is no alternative.
Only I think that there is. I think that the way we organise and do business needs to be rethought. The reality today is one of increasing economic inequality, both within and between nations, a radically deteriorating natural environment, systemic and regular financial crises, and rising levels of mental illness, stress and unhappiness, even in countries with the highest GDP. The dominant methods that we use to organise are not only failing to improve these situations; they are actively contributing towards their deterioration. Why should we assume that the world of giant corporations, overpaid bankers and the working poor is inevitable? Because the powerful tell us that it is? Because Business Schools teach us such lessons?
The reason that the supermarket is profitable is because it pays its staff as little as it can, it pays its suppliers as little as it can, it imports products from across the world regardless of carbon footprint, it avoids as much tax as it can, and it destroys local competition. But we don’t have to assume that supermarkets are somehow inevitable, and that these negative consequences cannot be avoided. Organizations are human creations, not monsters from another planet. We can decide what sort of organizations we want, and what sort of rules we want to create as a means of governing them. We don’t have to believe the powerful when they tell us that the world just has to be like this before retreating to their tax shelters and gated estates.
The Companion to Alternative Organization examines a range of different models for organising finance, production, distribution, exchange and consumption, explaining and evaluating them on the basis of what they have done and what they can do. It issues a challenge to the established orthodoxy by offering feasible and practical alternatives to a traditional capitalist system. This isn’t utopian thinking. It’s a practical way of saying that there are always other ways in which we can organize things, because organization is politics made durable. There are chapters in the book on worker self-management, consensus decision making, credit unions, fair trade, bioregionalism, gift economies and open source software movements. We also have sections on co-operatives, community currencies, the transition movement, scrounging, co-housing and many more. The idea is to paint a rich picture of the ways in which another world is not only possible but already there, if we look hard enough.
The London Road Bakery is still there, for now, and for me it represents something really warm and local when compared with the soulless superstore down the road, where people are paid badly to do awful jobs. That’s why I think it’s important to move beyond complaining about the present and onto exploring the sheer diversity of organisational possibilities. This means not believing the powerful when they tell us that the world has to be like this, and ensuring that a School of Management doesn’t just exist for the sake of benefiting managers in particular, but humankind more generally.