Thursday, August 9, 2012

17. Universalism

Communism was universalist, but so is neoliberal market ideology. Friedrich Hayek, one of the inspirators of neo-liberalism, pointed out the importance of the spread of diverse, local knowledge and ideas, which can never be matched by any system of central planning. The paradox now is that this insight into the role of diversity is transformed into a universal notion of markets, without regard to diversity according to industry, organization, technology, culture, religion, institutions, history, education, infrastructure, climate, geography, knowledge, etc. The universalism of markets implies non-intervention, laisser faire. And that gives ample room for smart people to exploit the imperfections of markets. The myth of markets has led to blindness to the perversities of capitalism and an aversion to intervention until it was forced by an accumulation of excesses.

The spread of market processes to public services, such as transportation, education, and health care, has led, not to the proclaimed simplification of society, but on the contrary to an increasingly complex system with a large diversity of controls to govern the market imperfections to which one was blind. And these increasingly complex controls are in their turn understood in universalistic terms.

In organizations people are confronted with a managerial drive towards abstraction and the sway of universal rules, in a compulsion towards control that under the cover of ‘rationalisation’ forms a plague for professional work. From a legitimate feeling of responsibility or ‘accountability’ towards shareholders and citizens, managers in business and public services impose more and more controls. Yet is has been known for a long time, in the relevant literature, that professional practice is too rich, too diverse and too variable, from one application to another, from one patient to the other, one pupil to the other, from one bridge to be built to the other, etc., to be identical, so that room must be left for improvisation and professional discretion of practitioners. This is proven in the condition that when workers shift to exact conformance to the rules (work to rule) this is a form of sabotage.

As indicated in an earlier piece, Aristotle already recognized that human activity often cannot be fully consistent, because practical conduct has to deal with ever changing conditions. With more regulation and regimentation of work less appeal is made to intrinsic motivation in work, in professional ethics and pride and the challenge to mend errors from one’s own sense of responsibility. If people are told precisely and fully what to do they unlearn thinking for themselves what it is good to do.

Because of the increasing complexity of systems of control their design is increasingly entrusted to specialists. We are getting ensnared in vicious circles where managers lose authority because they no longer have control over the controls that obstruct professional work. Professional workers lose authority because they can no longer offer professional quality, and are no longer motivated to do so, and this contributes to a further strengthening of external control mechanisms.

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