“The Logic of Conformity: The Corruption of Economy” Tadit Anderson

   In the history of ideas in the U.S. within the social sciences, civic affairs, industrial psychology, management theory, social work, and related beach front property there was a span of time from about 1886 to 1928, when the major principles and practices took a turn toward conformity, rather than sustaining an open discourse. The majority of this shift is connected to investments by corporate interests to advance its own interests as political favors for pay and under the pretense of generosity, otherwise known as philanthropy. This can also be noticed in the stacking of economics departments with neo-classical economists and in the elimination of diversity of perspective, and thereby supporting a falsification of consensus on economic and social policies.

   Mason Gaffney describes this shift in his book The Corruption of Economics, as intended to exclude the influence of economists such as Henry George. The exiling of those influenced by Karl Marx and Thorstein Veblen should also be included. The numerous conflicts experienced by the Cooperative League of the USA from its beginning in 1916 under the leadership of James Peter Warbasse and its efforts to define a middle way is another measure of the same conflicts and marginalization of alternatives. 

     The period saw substantial agitation by organized labor and the notion of U.S. manifest destiny was popular as well, though it had rather strong imperialist and racial implications. Economics in the US of this period was derivative of the English “empirical” and neo-classical economists. Those who had studied in Europe tended to describe their domain as “political economy.” The elite definition of “political” was any view critical of the established social order. In effect major universities cooperated with the “robber barons” bearing gifts to advance that agenda. Sociology became a separate field strongly influenced by the definition of “sociology” interpreted as social physics, denying the political nature of this field as well except by its exclusions and conformity. Albion Small's The Origins of Sociology first published in 1924 notes this division between the materialist version of social sciences and the variety that began under political economy.

  In industrial psychology we had F. W. Taylor, G. Homans, and others of a rather behaviorist, mechanistic, and elitist nature, and on the other side of the process we had the American pragmatists, Mary Parker Follett, others of a small “d” democracy persuasion, and a token sample of ideological socialists. The social sciences in the U.S. generally drifted toward an external view of social organizations as a context for socialization toward conformity, rather than focusing upon the integration of available capacities and possibilities. Mary Parker Follett's view of “community” is clearly different from the conformity basis, as stated in her essay entitled “Community is a Process,” and that she treated diversity as a resource, rather than something to be overcome.

    During the same general span of time the concept of “science” acquired two contrasting perspectives, one was very behaviorist and mechanistic in its reliance upon quantified observations as a way of validating the “scientific” nature of an intellectual domain. On this side industrial psychology had the F. W. Taylor variety of time and motion studies and the Hawthorne Experiments. The other version was based upon experimental and historical adequacy, applicability, validity, and reliability, and included Mary Parker Follett and the historical economists. On this basis there was the engagement of participants in an integrative problem solving process.

   The word “progressive” in that era also had multiple definitions and a major portion of them were more about papering over elitist political presumptions including a resistance to pluralism, rather than being comparable by results. Woodrow Wilson was a prime example of the elitist interpretation of “progressive.” His term included Attorney General Alexander Palmer, whose raids upon labor organizers without full citizenship gathered up them up and summarily ejected from their homes onto boats bound for Europe without even a fig leaf of due process. Wilson's term also included the show trial of Sacco and Vanzetti whose primary legal offense was essentially of being poor and Italian. This period can be largely be interpreted as a reactionary response by elites to labor organizing and later to the Russian Bolshevik revolution. It was similar in many ways to the reactionary response in the US and England to the French Revolution about a century before. The period also supported the corporately funded public relations campaign to involve the US in World War I, the extreme and punitive forms of economic and political violence inflicted by the Versailles Treaty as the spoils of “peace-making,” and the passage of the US Federal Reserve Act, also known as the Owen Glass bill which privatized the US monetary and central banking systems.

   Major corporate money also moved into university funding and was used to influence faculty appointments and research. Whole universities were even started to reflect a “business friendly” perspective, which actually was less business friendly relative to production than deferential toward wealth, the financialization of industry, and the commodification of labor. The US Socialist and Communist political parties were raided and dis-membered during this period which tended to leave labor organizations which were the ideological complements to the corporate interests.

    There are two aspects of Mary Parker Follett as a social scientist and advocate that make her contributions well worth restoring. One is that in current times her material is still considered to be progressive and cutting edge. Peter Drucker, the long time advocate for the professionalization of management during the past 50 years, was highly appreciative of her contributions and named her as a major predecessor to modern progressive management. The second aspect is that she carries forward several aspects of the tradition of cooperation as exemplified by the Rochdale Pioneers in England. She was well respected by labor unions both in the US and in England. She approached industrial conflict and management in a manner very close to the logic and problem solving of the craftwork culture. She believed strongly in how diverse perspectives and experiences might be integrated. Her own summation of what she was devoted to was stated as the “science of cooperation.”

   If you look around at the strategies and social psychology that continues to be preferred by management, it is very clear which prevailed by its patronage and homage to wealth, and by other political interventions. But I respectfully suggest that that was accomplished at great loss to all.The major exception being perhaps those pressed the strategy of financialization and the extraction of unearned rent in every possible way. That her ideas have not worked themselves into management and industrial psychology curricula, despite Drucker's advocacy, is not surprising. For a brief period after black thursday and the economic depression of 1929 to 1933 and its discrediting of conventional economics, progressive economists received more recognition and respect.

    They were exiled again in the late forties and early fifties as a result of the political cleansing of the McCarthy Period. In the professionalization of management and in the corporate funding of the transplantation of business schools onto university property this association created opportunities for patronage supportive of management as a process conducted by an elite, rather than having it treated as a process. This elevated management as a profession and sustained a general educational narrowness on the pretense of trumping abstractions with practice for the sake of a “professional” level salary.” To the extent that the ideal of technocratic management in service to the financialization of industry won out and that the neo-classical theology of economics remained well supported we have again experienced the collapse of their capacities to understand or even to respect the effects of their imagined entitlement to wealth extracted from communities.

    People are routinely hired to fill assistant manager positions as a strategy to avoid the legal possibility of unionization. Management functions of chain store operations tend to be performed at a central office. The on site manager tends to be more of a custodian as a site specific manager. In this context the concept and potential of management has become greatly diluted. In effect this level of managerial experience and skill is very limited, and this becomes one version of management by position showing little expectation of any skill or knowledge beyond basic communication skills. A major path to a management position has been from the employee level who are to be managed. When there is a lack of concern for management related issues or skills other than self preservation, this quickly leads to a high level of dysfunction. Without an appreciation of management related issues, this process often becomes a demonstration of the Peter Principle, whereby people are promoted to one level above their competence. This becomes little more than management by position often occupied by the untrained and insecure.

    Knowing something about the principles and culture of cooperation would lead us to expect a higher standard for management within cooperatives, and derived businesses. There are also circumstances where people actually apply an understanding of what the principles and culture of cooperation imply. I would guess that these managers either came from a context where the principles and culture of cooperation were well understood or landed in a context where the culture and practice of cooperation was already well established. As an educated guess I would suppose that most of the people now occupying management positions within retail cooperatives in the US do not have a degree in management or business, and this is probably to their advantage. Perhaps a few have spent some time exploring management strategies which contribute to the practice of cooperation.

    There also exists a nether world of cooperatives who use the values and aspirations of economic democracy as an opportunity to re-package the unexamined assumptions which make “cooperate” roughly synonymous with “conform” or “...because I said so.” These patterns are peculiarly conflicting particularly in a context that exalts economic democracy and that has attracted both members and staff based upon those expectations. The next of kin are the non-profits that advocate for social and economic justice, while operating as an autocracy.

  Further, during the current collapse of the economic paradigm of financialized capital, the obstacles to restoring that paradigm are multiple and would at best only restore its contradictions and the presumed entitlements by unearned rents, profits by speculation, and by extortion. In many ways the world did not recover from the depression of 1929-1933 or the devastation of multiple countries during prior periods of corporate colonialism. It is not surprising at all that once the regulatory processes were either captured or nullified, the conditions of economic collapse returned. It will be by restoring the fundamentals of oikos-nomia in multiple ways. Progressive management is one component of an economic reform agenda. The subversion of a functional economy for the exclusive purpose to capture and extract as much wealth as possible, is simply usury institutionalized.

 

 

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