February 11, 2019
I have often claimed, in moments of frustration probably having more to do with annual performance evaluations than the more rewarding duties attendant to management, that “Welcome to Management” are the worst three words in the English language because they are so intimidating.
Another management friend of mine who shared my on-again, off-again attitude would sometimes respond, “God on Earth is a Middle Manager,” implying that a Middle Manager is caught between two worlds: Playing God and Acting like the Devil. These observations were usually made after work at a nearby bar and sometimes after the first drink. (This is the same friend who frequently evaluated the results of a management decision as “No good deed goes unpunished.”)
Having gratefully not been a “Manager” for twenty years, I thought I had put it all behind me until a recent edition of the New York Times carried the obituary of an iconic figure in my constant struggle to reconcile my distaste for management with my need for a job, Erik Olin Wright.
As a dedicated capitalist who feels guilty about believing in something so flawed (still, it beats being Catholic these days), I felt Dr. Wright was one of those people who confirmed my suspicions about both capitalism and socialism, in effect, leaving me with an ambivalence about exactly when you should kneel before the altar of either. I believe Dr. Wright, a “Marxist sociologist,” according to the Times, summed up his own ambivalence, quoted in his obit, that “What is needed are hard-nosed proposals for pragmatically improving our institutions.” I interpret his suggestion as a plea to put Ideology on the bookshelf when things need to done and replace it with Roberts Rules of Order.
Perhaps his greatest contribution to my interpretation of the dilemma and challenge facing the middle manager is his work on “contradictory class location,” now an accepted description of the role of the exploitative role of the “manager,” who is saddled with the responsibility of improving efficiency and productivity of the “working classes,” and who is in turn exploited by the “ruling classes” who control the environment within which the manager must produce.
I believe this is all relevant today as our nation copes, not for the first time, with what kind of economic ideology should demand our allegiance, especially in a world, in Dr. Wright’s words, occupied by a “capitalist class that’s so immensely wealthy that they are capable of destroying the world as a side effect of their private purist of gain.”
There was another time in our history, called the Gilded Age, when the “invisible hand” of capitalism (I prefer “market forces,” as a descriptor of that period) wrote so large it dominated the national ledger book until its inordinate gains were erased to make room for social(istic) entries by a Republican reformer. (Only to be mitigated by his successor.)
I look forward to Dr. Wright’s forthcoming and posthumous book “How to Be an Anti-Capitalist for the 21st Century.” It is worth noting that he didn’t title the book “How to Be a Socialist in the 21st Century.”
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