org theory and the new new spirit of capitalism
I had been planning to go a little less grandiose in this post, but two events in the last 24 hours have gotten me to thinking (again) about the org theory’s relationship to the big picture. I promise to try to bring it down to earth a little next go.
The first event was a talk Jerry Davis gave here yesterday. Jerry’s new book argues that between about 1980 and 2008 we shifted away from industrial society built around organizations and toward a post-industrial society. So far, so already said by Daniel Bell, Piore and Sabel and others. The twist Jerry offers is that this post-industrial society was not built so much around “networks”, “core competencies” or “value chains”. Instead all of this can be explained by the ascendancy of financial markets and the ‘gravitational pull’ they exerted on all aspects of society. That pull tugged not just on the decisions of companies, but also the way the governments operate, as well as the identities and political orientations of individuals and families (we became investors rather than citizens).
Though Jerry doesn’t discuss it, I’d say his book is a cousin of Boltanski and Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism. Like Jerry, Boltanski and Chiapello define three epochs of Western capitalism. They see the first as largely entrepreneurial and familial (pre-war) and the second as built around industrial organizations led by a managerial class (post-war). The logic of the third epoch, which spans roughly the same period of time as Jerry’s does, is built not around the financial markets, per se, but around a logic of freedom. Largely in response to the overwhelming power of the organization to control people and capital movement, the “new spirit of capitalism” sought to maximize the freedom of the individual. Here Boltanski and Chiapello take a decidedly more Marxian direction to claim that this ideology served the interests of the elite by quelling radical critiques of capitalism. (Jerry, perhaps sensing Marxism and “critical perspectives” as the third rail of American social science doesn’t go there).
I’ll leave you to read Jerry’s book—in stores soon—to get a sense of the broader argument he actually does make. But one takeaway is, regardless of how you characterize it, the current economic crisis signals an end of the road for the epoch that began in 1980. It’s done. Kaput. But if that is the case, then the question we are left with with is: what comes next? If not industrial organizations or the financial market or freedom, then what will the big organizing principle be?
The question calls to (my) mind Padgett and McClean’s arguments about Florence as well as Stark and his colleagues’ work on post-Soviet trajectories: Florence traveled from the Medieval logic of patrilineage and guild to the Renaissance logic of marriage and clientage. What does this tell us about the what to expect in a transition from post-industrial to post-post-industrial society? Hungary and Poland diverged in their post-soviet pathways. Might the way capitalism works in the US and Britain do the same in the wake of the collapse of finance and/or freedom as their common governing logics?
This leads me to the second event: a panel discussion sponsored by the University of Chicago Federalist Society under the title: “Can (and Should?) Detroit be Saved? The Future of the Auto Industry.” (It will be podcast and I’ll post it when it’s ready). The panel consisted of me (former UAW staffer with mainly sociological leanings working in the business school), Douglas Baird (former dean of the Law School and a leading figure of the Law and Economics crowd), Todd Henderson (rising star Libertarian theorist) and Richard Epstein (well established Libertarian theorist). Richard Epstein is the best known of the bunch; he has a regular column in Forbes and is widely read beyond the law school world. (To get a sense of his approach to the world these videos, one on the bailout, and another on his desire to see unions die may be of interest).
My opening comments, with some adjustments made on the fly, can be found here. My key points were that a domestic auto industry is a good thing, long term, for the country but that the auto industry suffers from a long term structural problem of lacking patient investment. The government can provide long term investment and, given that there is political will to save the industry, it should do so. That answered the question about Detroit. But the news of the day, of course, is about Chrysler and the way the Obama administration is structuring the bankruptcy. In particular, privileging non-secured investors (like the union and pension plans) over secured investors (like bond holders). This, you might imagine, did not make the Libertarians happy. They object both on grounds that the Adminsitration’s actions undermine the rule of law and on the grounds that the government should not wield power in the market; it should limit itself to creating and enforcing the rules by which actors in the market exert power over each other. (Me, I think it is a little naive to think that any government would do such a thing or even comes close when it says that’s what it has in mind. I’ll spare everyone my views on whether the UAW should be treated as a priveleged investor; but briefly my answer was, sure, why not?)
That was a setting which called for polemics. But OrgTheory.net isn’t the place to air that kind of thing. What is more important is what it says about where our field should go in the next several years. Specifically, if the government is going to play a more direct role in governing the economy, as it seems it will, what tools does our field offer on how to navigate it successfully? Do the ideas Selznick and others outlined make sense in a society in which organizations are no longer dominant? Does the shift strengthen Davis and McAdam’s argument that social movements’ relevance will increase? Is the answer—as other colleagues here at Chicago, Dick Thaler and Richard Posner, have argued—for government to structure incentives in elaborate ways to shape behavior? Or will government’s role diminish and give way to an amalgamation of technology—in the form of Wikipedia and a technology mediated “sixth-sense” (<–watch that video… very interesting, but also creepy and way big brotherish… sounds like a worthy candidate for a new logic of capitalism to me!).
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