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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.


Blogger Ricketson said...

Superficial comment: Maybe there aren't any new, revolutionary products because the customers don't want "new, revolutionary" products. It takes time and effort to decide if something new is worthwhile and then figure out how it fits into your life. Maybe customers see products as a means to an ends, rather than something intresting or exciting in themselves. They just want stuff that works.

January 18, 2008 5:30 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Good point, Adam. And that set of priorities--seeing products as a means to an end, and expecting them mainly to work--is a slap in the face to the whole "fashionized/entertainized" model Peters talks about. He celebrates the fact that sometimes a majority of a product's retail price comes from "image," rather than cost of production. If a majority of people ever decide they just want to buy the functioning item at a price reflecting its actual production cost, and pass on the "image" and the 90% of price it represents, the corporate economy is doomed. And considering how much of production is outsourced to independent manufacturers, it's only a matter of time till the sweatshop workers in China figure out they can make identical Nikes without the Swoosh and sell them for 10% of the price in the local market--while increasing their own pay 400%.

January 19, 2008 12:25 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Isn't "revolutionary" rhetoric pretty common in capitalism? Consumer revolutions? Revolutionizing consumption, etc? Heck, what's the advertising theme for Chevrolet? "An American Revolution."

January 20, 2008 11:28 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Btw, I would like to thank you Mr. Carson for your excellent book. I've just been reading it! Talking of anarchist economics, if you speak Spanish you should check out Abraham Guillen. In the 1980s he wrote two large books on anarchist economics and even, I believe, defended the free market principle from an anarcho-syndicalist position (as a former member of the CNT).

January 20, 2008 11:31 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

daniel owen,

Thanks for the nice comment, and thanks for the tip on Abraham Guillen. I don't read Spanish, but I found some interesting material in English online.

You're right, "revolutionary" rhetoric is common in capitalism; but before the late '70s, the average corporate CEO was as grey and anonymous as a Soviet Party apparatchik, and MBA culture was about as bureaucratic as that of the Soviet planning bureaucracy. And Peters is over-the-top even by the standards of post-Iacocca corporate culture. Those passages chiding people for not using the words "crazy" and "zany" often enough are just an embarrassment.

January 22, 2008 9:37 PM  
Blogger Eric H said...

I remember hearing an interview with some edgy new author on NPR one time in which he pointed out that once Burger King used "Break all the rules" in an ad campaign, there was no revolution left to pursue.

Incidentally, for a relevant laugh, google "Break all the rules". I'm lovin' it.

January 23, 2008 11:03 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Ah, "I'm lovin' it." That brings back some excruciating memories. McDonald's Vanilla Ice ventures in pandering to hip-hop culture were almost as much of an embarrassment as Mitt Romney's "Who Let the Dogs Out" and "bling-bling" on Monday. Unfortunately, McD's advertising execs, like Romney, are too stupid to be embarrassed.

We're getting into Thomas Frank territory here, although Walter Mitty captured the essence of the phenomenon long before. I wrote about it, briefly, at "Commodified Rebellion for the Wage-Slave"

I suspect all this has something to do with the popularity of the wretched Tom Cruise, who almost always plays some obnoxious hotshot who "breaks all the rules," but gets away with it because he's "the best." Incidentally, I once saw him described as "a shit-eating grin with legs."

January 24, 2008 2:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Along with my other distracted digressions, I've been posting at Limitedinc, most notably here, and dropping links to this site as I did so. KC, you might be interested not just in what I put but in Arkady's comment about difficulty accessing your site.

January 24, 2008 9:41 PM  
Blogger TGGP said...

Off-topic but a blog that usually does artsy-fartsy stuff just had a post that would seem more up your alley. It's about why the financial sector is so incredibly profitable (hint: the State).

Also, since the againstpolitics.com link on your blogroll no longer works, you might want to switch that to teageegeepea.tripod.com/AgainstPolitics

January 26, 2008 3:29 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


Thanks for the link to the 2blowhards article. It was excellent.

I tried the link to your Against Politics mirror site when you posted it some time ago, and never could get it to load. It works well now. I'll be adding it to my links sometime soon.

January 29, 2008 11:01 AM  
Blogger Citizen Carrie said...

Your reference to Bob Nardelli's "process improvement" made me think of a Boeing website that I visit sometimes when I'm depressed and need a good laugh.


Page 19 is my favorite.

February 29, 2008 8:24 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks, Carrie. That is a hoot. The bit about 1/2 the effort is especially funny. The management at the hospital where I work have done such a great job of estimating just how much effort it takes to provide patient care, from their all-seeing deskbound perspective, that we have patients shitting the bed waiting an hour for a bedpan and going a week without a bath or linen change. I can just imagine the folks at Boeing saying "Let's see, if we cut the effort by half, that means we can cut the work force by two-thirds!"

The real motivation was more accurately reflected in a recent Non Sequitur cartoon. It showed an executive who'd turned the top of his massive mahogany desk into a putting green. He said: "And I only had to eliminate three production jobs to pay for it!"

I hate those people a little more every time I go to work. Someday a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

February 29, 2008 11:10 AM  

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