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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Chapter Ten Draft

Another draft chapter for the organization theory manuscript:

Chapter Ten: Attempts at Reform from Within

And here's a teaser from the chapter:

Tom Peters as Poochie

Peters' personality is also part of the problem, along with the fact that he has gotten worse as his career progressed (eventually degenerating into a total embarrassment, with the occasional genuinely libertarian insights buried in a mountain of Gingrichoid crap). His work probably reached its peak in quality with the genuinely exciting Thriving on Chaos. After that, it went downhill; Liberation Management and The Tom Peters Seminar could have been written by an automated Tom Peters Hyperbole Generator.

In his later work, in the 90s, he tended to throw around words like "revolution" and "radical" and "crazy" and "extreme" to the point of self-parody. A good example is the self-indulgent Tom Peters Seminar, which must use the term "revolution" several hundred times from cover to cover--but whose assertions are backed up mainly by quotes from Fortune 500 CEOs. By the time I finished reading that book, I felt like he'd quoted all five hundred of them, about twenty times each; he's a worse name-dropper than Tom Friedman. The overall effect is like a version of State and Revolution in which Lenin manages to insert three quotes from the Tsar and his ministers on every page. His celebration, in Liberation Management, of "Ted Turner as Hero" (along with Jack Welch and Al Neuharth), speaks volumes about the kind of "revolution" he has in mind: one with its own Thermidorean reaction already built in.

The rhetoric goes to the edge of silliness--and then far, far beyond. Consider the following examples:

Change? Change! Yes, we've almost all, finally, embraced the notion that "change is the only constant." Well, sorry. Forget change! The word is feeble. Keep saying "revolution." If it doesn't roll easily off your tongue, then I suggest you have a perception problem--and, more to the point, a business or a career problem.#

Do you and your colleagues routinely use "hot" words: "revolution," "zany," "weird," "freaky," "nuts," "crazy," "apeshit," "Holy Toledo"...?....

Are you prepared to forswear the word "change" for "revolution"? If not, why not? Because I'm an extremist? Or because you aren't?

On a scale of 1 to 10, how "crazy" (a) are you? (b) is your unit? (c) your company? (d) your most innovative competitor? [Tom Peters Seminar, p. 22]

Reading such passages, I was suddenly struck by Peters' resemblance to "Poochie," the "edgy" cartoon character introduced on Itchy & Scratchy. When challenged to give him more "more attitude," the writers finally added sunglasses. Wow, just like Huey Lewis! Ten years ago, when the Fox Family Network premiered, a Fox corporate PR woman gushed about the "edginess" and "quirkiness" of the new network's programming. When questioned on exactly what she meant by those terms, she was unable to define them without reusing the words "quirky" and "edgy": e.g. by reference to the network's "quirky" and "edgy" demographic, sensibilities, etc. I suspect that "quirky" and "edgy," like Peters' "crazy" and "zany," amounted in substance to little more than a pair of sunglasses. Tom Peters may not have sunglasses like Poochie's, but he demonstrates his own "attitude" by wearing Hawaiian beach trunks with a suit jacket in the back cover photo of The Tom Peters Seminar. Whoa, radical, dude!

Just how much he exaggerated the radicalism of prospective change and the pressure for such change, Peters himself sometimes lets slip. Just as a basis for comparison, first consider this rather hyperbolic quote:

Change and constant improvement (kaizen, per the Japanese), the watchwords of the '80s, are no longer enough. Not even close. Only revolution, and perpetual revolution at that, will do.

Leaders at all levels must accept what the transformational leaders tell us: that the organization can "take it" (enormous change), that only a bias for constant action and a bold embrace of failure, big as well as amall, will move companies forward. The point is to compress 10 years' worth of "change," by yesterday's standard, into one year, if not months. Then draw a deep breath and start again. Forget the calm at the end of the storm. If you sense calm, it's only because you're in the eye of the hurricane. [Ibid., p. 271]

Or this one:

Ah, how sad it is, in these turbulent times, to watch the average company, small or large, trying to succeed in the herd by moving maybe "a little bit faster than yesterday" or "delivering a little better quality or service than yesterday." Forget it. It'll be trampled. [Ibid., p. 283]

Then contrast the above rhetoric in Commandante Peters' Revolutionary Communique No. 1 to the following passages, in which he lets slip some hints that perhaps the marketplace isn't quite as revolutionary, nor the creative destruction quite so frenzied, as he depicts it. For example, he quotes Wal-Mart CEO David Glass on the "absolute dearth of new and exciting fashion-forward products," and adds:

He's right. Among all the new products hitting Wal-Mart's shelves, where is the equivalent of the early microwave oven, the video cassette recorder, or the Walkman--the kind of products, as Glass put it, that sucked people off their couches by the millions and propelled them into his stores?

New soft and hard products alike are coming at us in increasing numbers from every corner of the global economy, but are they exciting, magical, special? Do they pass the Wow Test...? ...[A]s former Apple Computer chairman John Sculley said, "What's the new capability? ....It's like Rocky IV and Godfather V." [Ibid., p. 18]

Shortly thereafter, he writes:

Look through a sample of 25 catalogs, from pet supplies to personal computers. They're thick, but are they interesting? How many new offerings take your breath away...? [Ibid., p. 21]

Peters, in such passages, inadvertently tells a tale on himself. To someone who hasn't been successfully reeducated to Peters' New Capitalist Man values, all those "revolutionary" corporations seem to be still following something that bears a suspicious resemblance to the traditional oligopoly strategy of spooning out carefully rationed improvements. And come to think of it, if there's such a dearth of innovative products, there can't really be all that much "revolutionary" pressure to compete with a bunch of companies producing mediocre crap, can there? He challenges his readers, at the end of the same chapter:

How many processes and products have been tossed overboard (not "changed") in the last 12 months? If none or only a handful, why? [Ibid., p. 22]

Um... maybe because there's a dearth of new and exciting products from our competitors, and none of their catalogs contain products that take our breath away, so we figure we can probably get filthy rich making the same kind of crap they do? Duh.

In the roughly thirteen years since Peters wrote all that bovine scatology about the absolute necessity for continuous revolution in quality and service, if a corporation was to survive, we've seen virtually every corporation in the country adopt the universally despised "automated customer service menu." We've seen Home Depot, Lowe's, and Wal-Mart adopt a common model parodied by King of the Hill's Mega-lo-Mart, in which most service jobs are held by pimply high school kids in smocks who know little about the store's products and care less. I've seen it for myself at Lowe's, where the "associates" in the garden supply department know absolutely nothing about plants or soil additives, and the stock answer to any question is "I dunno. I guess if you don't see it, we ain't got it." I've talked to veterans of numerous Fortune 500 companies who all tell versions of the same story: career sales employees who knew the product lines and customer needs inside and out, replaced by high school kids working for minimum wage. As we saw in Chapter Seven, that's pretty much what Bob Nardelli did to Home Depot to get himself a $200 million-and-change severance package. (Nardelli was an avowed Six Sigma enthusiast, by the way; his idea of "process improvement" was to downsize the service staff and nearly double the number of customers each "associate" had to serve in an hour.) Some friggin' revolution.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Vulgar Libertarianism Watch, Number.... I've Lost Count

I pretty much quit topical blogging a long time ago, and turned this into a blog primarily on organization theory. But Meir Israelowitz sent me a link to this piece, and Holy Moley, it was just too good to pass up--like shooting fish in a barrel.

Steven Pinkner: "The Moral Instinct"

Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug? And which do you think is the least admirable? For most people, it’s an easy question. Mother Teresa, famous for ministering to the poor in Calcutta, has been beatified by the Vatican, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and ranked in an American poll as the most admired person of the 20th century. Bill Gates, infamous for giving us the Microsoft dancing paper clip and the blue screen of death, has been decapitated in effigy in “I Hate Gates” Web sites and hit with a pie in the face. As for Norman Borlaug . . . who the heck is Norman Borlaug?

Yet a deeper look might lead you to rethink your answers. Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” that used agricultural science to reduce world hunger, has been credited with saving a billion lives, more than anyone else in history.
"...[H]as been credited." That's a classic example of the weaselly passive voice if I ever saw one.

And most of those "Green Revolution" techniques were developed to be usable primarily on large cash-crop plantations, with subsidized irrigation water, on land from which peasant subsistence farmers had been evicted. So saying he "saved a billion lives" is a lot like saying someone "provided a billion crutches" when he's working in league with the people who broke all those legs in the first place. Yeah, I guess he reduced the rate of starvation among people who were robbed of their own land, on which they otherwise might have been feeding themselves without a problem.

Gates, in deciding what to do with his fortune, crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea and parasites.

Hmmm. Let's change just one word: "Capone, in deciding what to do with his fortune, crunched the numbers...."

The "morality" of it depends quite a bit on how that "fortune" was obtained in the first place. And considering that Gates and his partner in crime Ballmer are two of the most odious Copyright Nazis in the world, and that Microsoft's entire business model depends on state measures like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to protect them from market competition, it's fair to say Gates was being generous with stolen money. If you're looking for someone doing something admirable for the Third World, how about the people promoting open-source software in countries too poor to afford Gates' gold-plated turd?

Addendum. A couple of readers suggested I might have been too harsh on Borlaug. I think I hinted (albeit in a snarky manner) that he probably did save people from starvation given the fact that most of the starvation had been caused in the first place by landed oligarchs and latifundistas in collusion with agribusiness interests. But I was probably a bit too snarky, if I gave the impression that he bore personal culpability for the actions of those landed and agribusiness interests, or that he consciously colluded with their crimes in order to enrich himself. So to put it in a less snarky manner, Borlaug may well have been motivated by an altruistic desire to save lives, given the constraints. His worst fault, if that, was probably accepting the existing distribution of power and land as a natural state of affairs, and failing to grasp the potential for small-scale subsistence agriculture as an alternative, absent the sort of thuggery faced by peasants.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Chapter Outline of Organization Theory Manuscript, with Draft Chapters to Date

A draft of Chapter Ten is in the works (I'm about to go bonkers reading stuff on TQM, Six Sigma, Juran, etc., pop management stuff by Tom Peters, and left-wing critiques of all of it). When I get that up, I'll be dividing my writing time between new draft chapters for Part Four (I've got bits and pieces of Ch. 11) and filling in the gaps in earlier chapters (most notably putting in a bunch of stuff on the New Middle Class and the managerialist revolution--especially from Christopher Lasch's corpus, Joel Spring, etc.--in Ch. 4).

Part One: State Capitalist Intervention in the Market
Chapter One: A Critical Survey of Orthodox Views on Economy of Scale
Chapter Two: A Survey of Empirical Literature on Economy of Scale
Chapter Three: State Policies Promoting Centralization and Large Organizational Size

Part Two: Systemic Effects of Centralization and Excessive Organizational Size

Chapter Four: Systemic Effects of State-Induced Economic Centralization and Large Organizational Size

Part Three: Internal Effects of Organizational Size Above That Required for Optimum Efficiency

Chapter Five: Knowledge and Information Problems in the Large Organization
Chapter Six: Agency and Incentive Problems in the Large Organization
Appendix 6A: Toilet Paper as Paradigm
Chapter Seven: Economic Calculation in the Corporate Commonwealth (the corporation as planned economy)
Chapter Eight:
Managerialism, Irrationality and Authoritarianism in the Large Organization
Appendix 8A: Blaming Workers for the Results of Mismanagement
Chapter Nine: Special Agency Problems of Labor (internal crisis tendencies of the large organization)
Chapter Ten: Attempts at Reform from Within

Part Four: Conjectures on Decentralist Free Market Alternatives
Chapter Eleven: The Abolition of Privilege
Chapter Twelve: The Cost Principle
Chapter Thirteen: Decentralized Production Technology
Chapter Fourteen: Social Organization of Production (cooperatives and peer production)
Chapter Fifteen: Social Organization of Distribution and Exchange
Chapter Sixteen: Mutual Aid


Thursday, January 03, 2008

Libertarian Alliance and Friends

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