ECONOMICS: by Bob BrowningNews Weekly
Managing countries, managing companies
, February 26, 2000
Two new books show yet again how ideas have consequences. Bob Browning looks at a work of modern history and a management guide and discovers a lot in common.Bob Browning's previous articles and reviews of his books are available on http://www.sprint.net.au/~rwb
How do we explain people's potential for cruelty and the capacity to remain indifferent to the infliction of suffering, even to the mass extermination of other human beings? Historian Robert Conquest who has spent his life exposing the evil side of 20th century history, tries to shed light on the processes that periodically unleash terrible forces. He concludes that the power of ideas is the major facilitating element.
In his latest work, The Curse of Ideas: Reflections on a Ravaged Century (Norton, 1999), Conquest ponders how to explain and cope with the reality of the 80 million people who lost their lives in civil and foreign wars during the 20th century, and the similar number who perished in campaigns of mass annihilation. The Nazis slaughtered ethnic "degenerates" and "inferiors", and Soviet and Chinese communists disposed of "class enemies" and "counter-revolutionaries". Stalin engineered massive food shortages to crush resistance to collectivisation and to snuff out any possible nationalist opposition to Soviet rule. The resulting famine killed millions of peasants. Mao did likewise in the Great Leap Forward. Both created concentration camp gulags to dispose of their "undesirables" and utilise mass slave labour in the race for rapid economic modernisation.
Conquest concludes that it is abstract, all-encompassing ideologies that unleash and justify cruel power. Nazism and Marxist-Leninism provided its adherents with a total explanation of history. Both promised victory and happiness - in the long run. Both justified efforts to conduct vast and disastrous experiments in social engineering, and to annihilate real or imagined opposition en masse.
The power of the Idea won followers and mesmerised them into accepting that anything furthering the cause was justified. Any amount of injustice committed in its name was OK. The devastating inhumanities of our era have been inflicted by human beings driven by certain thoughts. Again and again, true believers have not hesitated to apply brutish force to fellow human beings.
This does not occur only in "undeveloped" or "backward" countries. Germany, Austria, and Italy, for example, were among the West's most cultured and civilised. Fascism and Stalinism were not without followers in England, the United States and Australia.
Conquest examines how people can become incapable of conceiving the horrendous ends to which ideas can lead. His examples include Neville Chamberlain's inability to grasp the challenge posed by Hitler. Parochialism of this kind, Conquest thinks, is not a matter of intelligence but rather of "a knowledge of history and of evil."
A high level of education has not protected minds from inhuman notions. Even today, Conquest says, a surprising number of academics "seem to have been trained in, or selected for, susceptibility to dogma."
Special interest can also hinder and distort perception and response. Those who opposed communism, for example, did so for many reasons - some legitimate, some not. Genuine anti-communism focussed on its totalitarian essence. Lesser motives included opportunistic use of anti-communism by special interests in pursuit of other agendas. These ranged from anti-trade unionism to general hostility to social democratic regulation and redistribution via the welfare state.Unrecognised threats?
Currently, our vulnerability to cruel ideas may seem not to pose anything like the danger it did when Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism raged. But it would be foolish to assume the threat from callous ideas no longer exists, that we are suddenly immune from dangerous falsehoods and promises inviting us to reject consideration of "lesser" or "undeserving" human beings for the sake of progress. Have we any reason to believe we will never again be tempted to excuse injustice and cruelty under the banner of some fashionable, new orthodoxy - some ideology that purports to be the progressive way forward and blinds us to the use of power uninhibited by moral scruple, social responsibility, or brotherhood?
The essence of totalitarian ideologies lies in their ability to deprive selected people of human status and worth in the eyes of true believers and fellow travellers. Non-persons who become obstacles can be marginalised in easy conscience, or even disposed of if thought necessary.Current orthodoxies
Do any such propensities exist among the ideas informing today's economically-focussed public policy orthodoxies and corporate strategies? Are we watching for trends on the margins of political influence while neglecting those already at the centre of mainstream public policy?
A number of leading thinkers are concerned over some of the ideas determining the shape of the new international economic order and the policies of the West's most powerful nations and international agencies. Peter Drucker is one worth noting when considering Conquest's analysis.
Perhaps the world's best known management theorist and organisational consultant, Drucker has had insider access to the mindset and practice of many of the world's biggest, most powerful corporations and government agencies. After youthful clashes with Nazism in Europe and Stalinism in Western academia, Drucker's lifetime mission became to try to influence corporate and government management. He wanted those who set conditions of work and associated social environments to treat people as the primary value, the object and purpose of organisational activity.
Drucker thought this was the appropriate way to eliminate the breeding grounds of fascism and communism in a capitalist world organised (then) mainly around mass production manufacturing. He looked to better management of industrialisation and technological advance to banish fear, want, insecurity, and alienation. But now he sees regression. He sees managements reverting to using fear and insecurity as motivation to work and compete. "Nothing can come from the assumption that people don't want to work and must be made to work."
At the same time as corporation managements are offering workers less pay and security and paying themselves infinitely more, they are promoting the catchcry of "mutual obligation" to hassle the unemployed and disabled off welfare and reduce (corporate) taxes. Drucker says: "A lot of top mangers enjoy cruelty. There is no doubt we are in a period in which you are a hero if you are cruel. In addition, what's absolutely unforgivable is the financial benefit top management people get for laying off people. There is no excuse for it. No justification. This is morally and socially unforgivable, and we will pay a heavy price for it."
In the early and mid 1990s, America's biggest corporations went on an orgy of downsizing. Chainsaw Al-style CEOs became heroes of the stock market. IBM cut its workforce by 85,000, General Motors by 74,000 and Sears by 50,000. Drucker says job security is precious, particularly in a time of accelerating change: "Man, being mortal, frail and limited, his security is always precarious".
In Drucker's view, power is legitimised and becomes authority only when "it is justified by an ethical or metaphysical principle that has been accepted by society". But in the modern corporation the power of its managers is "derived from no one but the managers themselves". Their power lacks legitimacy. It is "unfounded, unjustified, uncontrolled and irresponsible power." This, he regrets, is what has been happening to big American corporations. He says capitalism will continue to be attacked:
"[N]ot because it is inefficient or misgoverned but because it is cynical. And indeed a society based on the assertion that private vices become public benefits cannot endure, no matter how impeccable its logic, no matter how great its benefits."
Drucker, the stalwart advocate of socially responsible management, says that what hurts most about the recent trends is the way management has been changed and diverted from its social mission by the intrusive influence of financial markets:
"[T]he new masters of American business (at least as perceived by middle managers and professionals) - the raiders, the junk-bond underwriters, the arbitrageurs and stock-exchange players - are so openly contemptuous of management people, of their focus on work rather than 'deals', of their working for a salary rather than to become rich, and especially of their belief in the company as something of value in itself, as something to be proud of, as something to 'belong to'."
Drucker observed with disgust the rejoicing on Wall Street over the way the Asian crisis rebounded eventually to its advantage and to the US economy (measured in growth statistics). Many remained oblivious or unconcerned about the suffering that the flight of capital mainly back to the US and Europe caused in Asian countries. In Indonesia it triggered riot, killing, arson and pillage. Presumably, it is trends like this that lead thinkers like Solzhenitsyn and Pope Paul ll to fear the possibility of a third totalitarianism - "the absolute power of money".
Drucker thinks that, in the brave new world economy, cynicism about politicians and disillusionment with government constitute a dangerous combination. He rejects the current wisdom that the weaker government becomes, the better. Never before, he argues, has "strong, effective, truly performing government" been more needed than in the present world economy. Like his late associate, Karl Polanyi, he sees deadly danger in "Social Darwinism" - the idea that it is natural as well as progressive to throw social values, institutions, and people's lives into the cauldron of laissez-faire capitalism where progress is promised if we free the strong to dominate and the weak to perish.
Like Conquest, Drucker warns us to watch out for "viciously wrong ideas". He resorts frequently to the social philosophy of Emile Durkheim who said: "Everything which is a source of solidarity is moral, everything which forces man to take account of other men is moral, everything which forces him to regulate his conduct through something other than the striving of his own ego is moral ... morality is as solid as these ties are numerous and strong."
Conquest and Drucker gives us good reasons to examine current ideological orthodoxies more critically. Vicious ideas do not arise only on the populist fringe of political activity. Some may already exist closer to home.
See also: The World According to Peter Drucker by Jack Beatty, The Free Press, 1998