The Changing Nature Of Work And Agency In Times Of Interregnum

Zygmunt Bauman, Interregnum

Zygmunt Bauman

Henning Meyer has asked my opinion on the big societal challenges likely to characterize the year we’ve just entered. There are, no doubt, many – perhaps uncountable – unresolved issues that will demand close watching during the coming year and press us for bold decisions and fateful steps. They are too numerous and most of them are too grave for my attempt to provide their full inventory to be anything but to say the least presumptuous and to smack of irresponsibility. I confine myself therefore to only two, though as I believe deserving quite a honorable place among our preoccupations.

Jerzy Kociatkiewicz, my colleague teaching at the University of Sheffield, shared with me a few days ago the following observation:

Last year, various beef and pork products sold in UK supermarkets were found to contain horsemeat. The continuing investigation was remarkable not because of uncovered dishonesty and profiteering (we have come to expect these in any story of corporate misconduct), but because it laid bare just how little managerial oversight there is in the global economy of subcontractors.

By coincidence, a couple of days ago BBC4 broadcast a “Hidden Killers” documentary, revealing among other things half-forgotten worries of the past, like exploding toilets or spontaneously combusting clothes, that between 1831 and 1854 (that is, before health and safety legislation was imposed and a workable control system was started in earnest)  had been found in Britain in 2.500 products “from aluminum compounds in bread to lead chromate in mustard”.

Almost two centuries later, the plague of food adulteration allegedly put paid to once and for all by efficacious management and ostensibly long buried worries, is rising from beneath the (mock, apparently) gravestones. The question is, how did it happen? Not a marginal question, judging by the massiveness of its resurrection; also in view of the “managed society” having qualities of a hologram or a stem cell: every part reflects the totality and from each one every other fragment can be extrapolated and restored.

The Changing Nature Of Managerial Strategies And Work

During most of the modern era, managerial strategies as recorded and articulated in Max Weber’s ideal type of bureaucracy were focused on rendering behaviour of their subordinates utterly predetermined and therefore predictable through eliminating or suppressing all and any factors of influence other than the commands issued by the superiors; those strategies involved as their major tenet the repression or at any rate suspension by the subordinates of their personal idiosyncrasies (beliefs, predilections, affectations, mannerisms and eccentricities – as well as loyalties, commitments and obligations) for the duration of performing the tasks set by their superiors – collated with the reduction of the criteria by which their performance was measured and judged down to the single yardstick of “the job having been done as commanded”.

The side effect of such strategies – not necessarily deliberately chosen and time and again experienced as uncomfortably and vexingly cumbersome – used to be the assumption by the managers of an undivided responsibility for the consequences of the command on the objects of commanded action. Released thereby from their responsibility for the results, their subordinates were in exchange burdened with the undivided responsibility to their superiors issuing the command.

The liquid phase of modernity brought in its wake a sui generis “return of the depressed”. In the preceding “solid” or “hard” phase the managers used to record individual idiosyncrasies of the managed on the side of liabilities. With a huge investment of mental and physical energy, money expenditure and sheer ingenuity, managers tried (with but a mixed success, to be sure) to repress those liabilities and better still to extirpate them altogether, as factors throwing out of balance routine and uniformity, the two pillars of an instrumentally-rational performance and so also of a smooth and unswerving goal-pursuit.

The same individual idiosyncrasies, resenting routine and resisting uniformity singularities and peculiarities of the managed, are now transferred onto the assets pages of accountancy books. Rather than to be suffered and reluctantly endured as no less inescapable than undesirable facts of life taxing and sapping the potential profitability of the enterprise, they are now welcome as ushering into as yet unexplored expanses of opportunity and so an augury and possibly a warrant of unprecedented gains. The side effect of that new managerial strategy is the shifting of responsibility for the results onto the shoulders of the managed, simultaneously reducing the responsibilities of the managers to the selection of the managed according to the promise of profitability they hold for the enterprise – and to the evaluation of quality (measured first and foremost in financial terms) of what they deliver.

Knowing of such seminal departures in the practical meaning of management and in the distribution of responsibilities, one shouldn’t be astonished, let alone surprised, when learning “how little managerial oversight there is in the global economy of subcontractors”.

That seminal shift in the practice of management could not be accomplished nor would have been conceivably designed were it not for the thorough deregulation of the labour market and conditions of employment and a retreat from the practice of collective bargaining and collectively negotiated salaries, wages and terms of employment: in other words, the thorough and well-nigh comprehensive individualization of the employer-employee relations. At least three of the side effects of that underlying shift have been hugely consequential for the ensuing managers’ position, role and strategy.

First, the management of situational uncertainty is now to a fast growing extent turning into a task of the managed instead of the managers.

Second, the managed have been cast in a setting that favours mutual competition and rivalry instead of solidarity.

Third, being increasingly reduced to hire-and-fire acts and progressively stripped off continuous top-down surveillance and supervision, the bonds between the managers and the managed have been substantially weakened: a departure that allows to disguise a massive growth of exploitation (instead of purchasing specific skills and specified time of the managed, managers now can – and try hard to, with considerable effect – claim use of the totality of time and all the explicit or hidden, known or yet to be found and/or elicited abilities and potentials of their employees) as “growing autonomy” of the managed and “flexibility” of their working times.

The suspicion of a massively contrived trompe d’oeil has however found a recent confirmation in the research report of Professor Cary Cooper of Lancaster University. It follows from his study that

around 40% of people are accessing emails on holiday – that’s work … (S)taff want to show that they are committed to try and keep their job in the next wave of redundancies.

Cooper coined the term “presenteeism”, as well as another term “electronic face time” for its email variety, to denote that fast spreading tendency for the “flexibility of office time” to generate huge volumes of free – unpaid and unrecorded – overtime. That tendency has already become enough of a public secret to be given – openly, explicitly, without beating about the bush – an official stamp by Marissa Mayer, the new boss of Yahoo, in a message addressed to her employees: working from home is “not what’s right for Yahoo right now … Come into the office where we can see you, and look busy”…

So where we are now, at the threshold of 2014? On the eve of another U-turn in the history of modern management? A signal of retreat from a bridge too far, back to the old trusty because familiar ways and means of having things done through forcing other people to do them? Or, rather, what we seem to be facing is stripping the new managerial philosophy and practice of the no longer needed disguise – a disguise apparently successful enough to work itself by now out of its job? In disguise of emancipation and new freedoms we have been successfully re-drilled to be 24-7 at beck and call of our employers and forget about the once gallantly defended boundary separating the private from the office time. The bluff of the scam can now be safely called.

Who Is Going To Do It? The Big Question Of Our Time Of Interregnum

Another participant of our threesome on-going electronic conversation about the present and foreseeable future of management, Professor Monika Kostera of the University of Warsaw, raised an issue seemingly different yet in fact closely related to the one above: we presently are, she suggested, in a phase of an “interregnum”,

a phase in-between systems, in between working organizational and institutional orders, able to offer political, economic and cultural frames for human culture to function and develop, and also to cultivate a sustainable relationship with the broader ecosystem. It is a liminal period, of unknown durability, characterized by fundamental uncertainty and many compelling questions, in place of what up till now has been regarded as axiomatic truth, ceteris paribus of modern economic faith. New working ideas of power and political settings, of markets – financial and human, and of planetary consequences of ecological and social mismanagement are being urgently called for and the areas of problems caused by the lack of viable solutions are growing to ever more alarming proportions. The current system is perfectly unable if perhaps not completely unwilling to solve them.

Interregnum – the condition in which the old ways and means of getting things done have stopped already working properly yet the new, more effective ways and means are still at the designing stage or at best in the stage of experimentation – has its temporal, to wit “diachronic”, but also its spatial, that is – “synchronic” dimension. Calling our present condition an “Interregnum” we refer to a time-span of yet unknown length, stretching between a social setting which has run its course and another, as yet under-defined and most certainly under-determined, which we expect or suspect to replace it.

But we also refer to processes under way in the morphology of human togetherness, the structure of human cohabitation: old structures, so to speak, are falling apart, its fragments enter new and untested arrangements, emergent settings are spattered with blank spots and ill-fitting fragments in an advanced stage of disrepair, as well as with other zombie-like fragments, still mobile though out of joint and lacking obvious uses and applications: the condition typical of “failing systems”.

Incapacitated by the logic of “more of the same”, extant systems are, as Monika Kostera rightly concludes, “perfectly unable” to face up to the challenge of de- and particularly re-composition. The structures that once interlocked into something reminiscent of a “system” are now, clearly, in disarray. But structures’ function is to serve as catapults as well as a guiding/steering frames for action. In the state of disarray they are, indeed, “perfectly unable if perhaps not completely unwilling” to assure that such function is performed. Hence the big, perhaps the biggest question of the time of interregnum, fully and truly the “meta-question” – one that needs be answered in order for all the rest of the questions to be properly articulated and the search for answers to them be started: “Supposing that we know what needs to be done, who is going (i.e., able and willing at the same time) – to do it?”

Seeking an optimally convincing answer, Kostera focuses on what she names the “meso level” of social integration. She wonders

how we can make a difference on the meso level by practices of self-management and self-organization, not waiting for the politicians or corporations for initiative but by taking the initiative into our own hands. In the world of complete colonization of almost all human domains by management, in a world where virtually everyone has been educated in management in some form, at some point in our lives; we have all learned the basics of how to manage. I propose that it is time to use that knowledge to create meso structures – organizations – able to support themselves economically, that have other overarching aims than the current mainstream corporations and political institutions.

Choosing to pinpoint an agency capable of meeting the required standard halfway between the state and the realm of individually run life politics, Kostera is on the right track. She is right in disqualifying the uppermost level – the level of territorially sovereign nation states – and the lowest level, that of the individual- or family-centered life politics, as serious, dedicated and reliable candidates for the job. I fully agree with her verdict.

Territorial sovereignty – the relic of the 1648 Westphalian settlement signed in Münster and Osnabrück yet for the duration of the nation-building and imperial colonialism eras presumed to remain the universal precept on the world order and practiced as such – has by now, in the era of global interdependency, turned into an illusion. As to the postulated/assumed sovereignty of the individual, it had been an illusion from its birth – a figment of imagination of governments keen to shoulder off the protective obligations of the state. Though for different reasons, the actors operating at levels above and below the medium level of social integration are equally unfit for the job.

The “medium level” stretching betwixt and between those extremes is of course a fairly vast territory, densely populated and encompassing variegated multitude of formations. Not all of them are promising enough to deserve investing in them hopes for the resurrection of effective agency. At the moment, I am inclined to follow however the trail blazed by Benjamin Barber in his as provocative as it sounds convincing study/manifesto published last year by the Yale University Press under the title If Mayors Ruled the World; Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities .

Today, states Barber,

after a long history of regional success, the nation-state is failing us on the global scale. It was the perfect political recipe for the liberty and independence of autonomous peoples and nations. It is utterly unsuited to interdependence. The city, always the human habitat of first resort, has in today’s globalizing world once again become democracy’s best hope.

Why nation states are singularly unfit to tackle the challenges arising from the fact of our planet-wide interdependence? Because “too inclined by their nature to rivalry and mutual exclusion”, they appear “quintessentially indisposed to cooperation and incapable of establishing global common goods”. Why the cities, especially the big cities, are immensely more adapted to take the lead? Because of

the unique urban potential for cooperation and egalitarianism unhindered by those obdurate forces of sovereignty and nationality, of ideology and inequality, that have historically hobbled and isolated nation-states inside fortresses celebrated as being ‘independent’ and ‘autonomous’. Nor need the mayors tie their aspirations to cooperation to the siren song of a putative United Nations that will never be united because it is composed of rival nations whose essence lies in their sovereignty and independence.

In fact, as Barber emphatically points out, far from being a utopian fantasy, all this is already happening – unplanned, unsupervised, unmonitored; it happens spontaneously, as a natural phase in the development of cities as locations where “creativity is unleashed, community solidified, and citizenship realized”. Daily confronted by globally generated problems and the urge to resolve them, cities are already proving their ability to address “multiplying problems of an interdependent world” incomparably quicker and better than the offices of nation-states capitals. To cut a long story short:

Cities have little choice: to survive and flourish they must remain hospitable to pragmatism and problem solving, to cooperation and networking, to creativity and innovation.

More than any other “totalities” on the present-day planet cities are capable to meet that challenge point blank. Whether they like it or not, cities and particularly the largest among them serve as dustbins into which the globally produced problems are disposed and where they ultimately land. And whether they like it or not, they function as laboratories in which effective tools to tackle and methods to resolve those problems are daily designed and put to test.

Cities are also of the right size and density of habitation to efface or at least seriously mitigate the difference between imagined and experienced totalities, between administration and human interaction, and eventually between physical and moral density. Peaceful mutually beneficial and gratifying coexistence between different traditions, cultural choices or creeds is happening when subject to the logic of urban life less a utopia and more a matter of daily work and achievement than in any other social setting. Cities indeed seem the best bet to all of us wishing for an agency able and willing to rise to the challenges of a globalized, multicultural and multi-centered planet.

Well, another societal challenge of enormous consequence. Facing up to the full grandiosity of a challenge, let alone finding an adequate response, is likely to take much longer time than one year. Finding out whether the response was indeed adequate would take immensely more time yet. But here we are, homini sapienti, squeezed between an increasingly irrelevant past and stubbornly recondite future and known for being wise after the fact more often than before.

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  • Prof. Bill Williamson

    Bauman is right to place the collective problems of the global order in the context of an increasingly irrelevant past and an unknowable future. He is also correct in highlighting the importance of meso-level institutions to overcome the problems of a dysfunctional state system. I am not so sure he either right about the changing nature of work and management (where his comments apply well to the world of metropolitan capitalism and not at all to the brutal working conditions of much of the developing world) and indeed if his main thesis required this account of work. His real focus is on the nature of the international order itself and its current inability to resolve collective problems peacefully and through democratic means. The city cannot be the ‘best hope’ for democracy unless and until we have a new answer to a question Ray Pahl put in the early 1970s: ‘whose city?’
    The best hope for democracy rests on social movements built on a coherent diagnosis of our time (to use Mannheim’s phrase) on the basis of which meso-level institutions (schools, workplaces, hospitals, communities etc) can be rebuilt and renewed to express the engagement and creativity and sense of solidarity of informed citizens. Democracy has to be lived in order o be learned and to flourish. To achieve that we have to renew our sense of democratic possibility and challenge all structures and practices (in the management of organizations and in the state) which undermine it. There are grounds for hope that this is happening but cities alone are not the source of the inspiration. We need to bring into view social movements that have an international dimension e.g. Medicin Sans Frontier, Greenpeace, the ILO and many others – some linked to institutions like the UN, others expressions of civil society 0to trace out the emerging contours of a new international consciousness.
    Thank you Zygmunt Bauman for once again re-focusing public discourse onto the issues that really matter.