An African American blog of politics, culture, and social activism.
Decades ago I read a book by the French philosopher and anarchist Jacques Ellul titled the Technological Society (in French La Technique: L’enjeu du siècle). It was revealing book for me. Ellul observed how production techniques in the Western world took on its own self-reinforcing rationality.
Stated another way, the techniques we use to create machinery become the standard by which we make all crucial moral judgments. So for instance in businesses driven by technology “best practices,” whatever they are, become so standardized that they trump other kinds of moral judgments. Ellul worried that in the technological society we would diminish humanist thinking and technique would overshadow everything else. He fretted that the Western world would lose wisdom, and its humanity. He felt that wisdom was found in a wide range of sources in classical literature. Or in my words from W.E.B. DuBois to Simone de Beauvoir.
To Ellul “best practices” techniques were no substitute for moral and political decision-making derived from the study of culture, history, and literature. Many people have forgotten about Ellul today, but he was prescient.
Not long ago, I heard a city of manager call the people of his city “customers!” He was so inundated with consumerist marketing language about the delivery of services that he forgot he served at the will of a democratic elected body. The language of managerial techniques so dominated his thought “customers” replaced democratic citizens! Citizen means something quite different than consumer! Rights, engagement, and voting! Citizenship is not a set of material goods to be delivered. Now, I am not attempting to make too much of this gaffe, the faux pas simply illustrates how technique trumps moral and political thinking.
By no means is this kind of thinking limited to a local municipality. There are plenty of politicians running for office who view governing as a corporate managerial technique.
In Michigan, the citizens have elected a former corporate investor as its governor. His philosophy as it turns out is based less on democratic citizenship and more about managerial technique. Most businesses, though there are some exceptions, are not very democratic spaces. This is especially true of big businesses—they are hierarchical and top down. People are hired and fired, but they are rarely asked their opinions or ask to participate in the restructuring of the company. Democracy, at least in theory, is designed to give majorities and minorities participation in the critical choices that their communities must collectively make.
Let’s get it straight! I am certainly not arguing here that timely delivery of goods and services are not important, they are! Nor am I arguing that management systems are unimportant. All institutions can stand to be more transparent and deliver services better.
What I am arguing is that managerial technique in and of itself does not instruct, inform or give us wisdom to govern. Management technique cannot quell resentment or negotiate a peace treaty between longtime enemies. Management technique offer little insight into long-term grievances or national aspirations! And data collection no matter where it is drawn from is always limited by one’s preconceived notions, position and station in life. So learning good management technique at a Business School or a school of Public Administration isn’t sufficient to make ethical choices about the human condition.
We should never confuse having technical skill with moral understanding or political wisdom. There are plenty of people who know how to manipulate facts and figures, but who do not have sound judgment. We too often confuse the two things and they are not the same.
Running an investment company is not the same thing as being a governor who must advocate and negotiate with various citizen groups. Good governance means to broker with all communities regarding the meaning of the common good. Governing is a constant give and take among communities. When it isn’t, its cronyism!
In American politics we have had our share of managerial leaders! Republican Herbert Hoover, for example! Hoover as president knew a great deal about management technique, but he got the politics wrong. He had a tin ear to economically devastated citizens in 1932.
The Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man who had spent his career in government, wound up beating him and governed effectively. To Hoover’s credit he would return to Iowa and then take over the International Red Cross and become quite the humanitarian.
Democrat Jimmy Carter, like Hoover, would share a similar fate and trajectory. Carter was full of managerial techniques and he too got the politics wrong!
Unfortunately, Ronald Reagan followed Jimmy Carter’s presidency. A president who knew all about the symbolism of politics, but who nearly sent the country careening over a precipice of indebtedness, militarism, and racial strife. And our last president with an MBA was George W. Bush; well, need I say more?