Browsing through books: Two books about (neo)liberalism

Recently I’ve been reading books originally written in or translated to Finnish. This post about (neo)liberalism covers:

Lahtinen, Veikka, and Pontus Purokuru (2020): Mikä liberalismia vaivaa? Kosmos.

Parker, Martin (2019): Kaadetaan kauppakorkea — Miksi bisneskouluista pitäisi tehdä organisaatiokouluja? Hannu Laurila, tran. Tampere: Vastapaino. (Orig. title: Shut down the business school: What’s wrong with management education)

It was great to get a British and Finnish sense of this phenomenon – or rather many phenomena instead on single phenomenon, as I learned.

Philosophical self-help in the times of neoliberalism

Mikä liberalismia vaivaa, written by Lahtinen and Purokuru, aims to explain why liberalism – that was in its time considered as progressive –  nowadays seems restrictive and outdated. While the authors point out that there are several liberalisms, the book focuses on analysing contemporary manifestations of (neo)liberalism.

In one critical review, the book is considered to ignore the different schools of thought in liberalism that have fiercely debated about the best means for “progress”, among other things. Moreover, according to the critique, the book blames liberalism for same kinds of broad generalisations the authors use themselves.

In their social media updates, at least Purokuru has commented that at times philosophy books are best available self-help books in a manner that actually helps the reader and does not leave them more things to achieve in order to be happy. I interpret Mikä liberalismia vaivaa from this perspective. Indeed, the critique above does end with an acknowledgement that the book has lively examples of everyday (neo)liberalism that strip away its power. This is where I start my reflection.

While liberalism has brought welfare for some, it seems current challenges make it harder for people to rely on this. Ecological crisis and social injustices have not been fixed with contemporary business-as-usual politics – anywhere with any isms to be exact. The book has a self-ironic perspective to the lives of Nordic middle-class people who consider themselves “woke” and become outraged about recent developments, but who seem little equipped to analyse their own role in it all. This all resonates too well with me. While I do have decided to do something and have ended up as a self-employed scholar in a precarious labour market position, I cannot escape the fact that I have had other choices. Moreover, I have the possibility to quit resisting and get more comfortable in my privileged and safe life. In fact, I get reminded of this daily when my grant researcher status causes mundane problems in university administration (not being employed means difficulties in, for example, trying to use systems meant for employees). It would be so much easier to go with the flow, get a job that fits the system, and accept that welfare for some means just a little bit of exploitation, misery, and death for others. 

The hidden gem of the book, I think, lies in its final pages. These are not covered in the critical review – nor in one favourable one. Yet, the final pages of the book include one of the the main arguments: We – people in welfare states who still have jobs or some security and a sense of social justice – have to familiarise with ourselves as neoliberal subjects, so we can organise collectively. Otherwise, as the authors note, “the trauma caused by the capitalist society explodes inside”. This image of implosion is a very powerful one. It has resonated with me ever since I read these lines some weeks ago.

The book has some concrete suggestions how to do this, but touches them quite briefly. This is understandable, since this is not the main focus of the book. I hope that the authors develop their thinking along these lines and write another book that has other sharp observations of the “good people” in welfare states – who still have jobs or some security and a sense of social justice –  who try to avoid implosion and direct their energy outside. Or perhaps that is my task as a scholar who studies postgrowth work practices and people who have started initiatives that hopefully help us live within planetary boundaries.

School for organising

Martin Parker is a highly cited scholar in organisation and management studies. In addition to alternative organising, Parker writes openly critical journal texts about the business school institution – and gets awarded for this by his business school and other institutions. The irony if this all underlines the perversive nature of neoliberalism: As long as someone can profit from it, it doesn’t matter what one says or does.

The reason I read Shut down the business school: What’s wrong with management education was not its critique of business schools . Although I enjoyed Parker’s  sharp observations and flow of writing, there were little revelations to me. After all, I spent 14 years of my life in business schools. I know what they are like and what it is like to be in the “alternative organising” camp surrounded by the written as well as the hidden curricula that advocates for managerialism and neoliberalism.

This book interested me because of its ideas about school for organising. Organisation studies, my discipline, is indeed a subject that is not limited to business schools only. Sociologists, anthropologists and other social scientists contribute to this transdisciplinary field of studies. Soo when I call myself an organisation studies scholar, it refers to the diverse field of disciplines and approaches. This is what Parker uses as a guiding principle for his suggestion about Schools for organising. School for organising would bring in traditions from disciplines and scholars beyond business school. It would be situated in the middle of the campus, but without the usual business school status symbols.

Contrary to the managerialist utopia sold by contemporary business schools, the school for organising is about studying all kinds of organisations. It is about piracy, chess clubs and care work organised by neighbours, to name just a few. Much of this is covered in another book he wrote with is colleagues Valérie Fournier and Patrick Reedy: The dictionary of alternatives: utopianism and organisation (2007, Zed Books).

What struck me in this book was its discussion on who would be the ones driving the change toward schools for organising – and in effect shutting down business schools. Parker argues that the state government, trade unions, business related organisations nor scholars working in business schools won’t be driving the change. Either they benefit from the current state of the matters or they have too little decision-making power. For instance, critical management studies scholars have criticised business schools for years, but they (including Parker) have been rewarded by their work pubslihed in high impact academic journals.

Thus, Parker puts his trust in students. They get an education for their future. They also know that the future is burdened with many more issues in addition to climate crisis, mass extinction of species and increasing inequalities in income and wealth. What they lack is the knowledge how to organise collective action to address these issues. Parker argues that “potential students need to explained that school for organising is a place that takes seriously the horrors of the world and provides advice what do about them” (p. 217, I translated this from Finnish).

This book has given me hope above all. (And made me envious of Parker’s writing style.) I alone cannot change business schools. But I can work with people who see the need for reforming education to “take seriously the horrors of the world and provides advice what do about them”. A big yes for schools for organising!


**


Browsing through books and articles is a series of texts that focus on reading. Reading is a skill that is needed for writing. Wendy Belcher describes in her excellent book about academic writing how successful academics read. A revelation: most books they don’t read from cover to cover. There is just too much to read and not enough time. But by getting to know many books, journal articles, authors and genres, scholars can choose what to read from covert to cover. In this series I report some of my observations when using this technique for interesting books and journal articles.

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