New Internationalist

Corpocrats

Issue 347

Why corporate executives don’t ask political questions, by Andrew Simms.

The global managers have arrived. They meet in identical glass-walled rooms in corporate headquarters, travel in first class and business cabins on intercontinental flights. They read the same international newspapers and watch the same global TV channels. They stay in hotel suites in business centres around the world, eat in international restaurants and always demand the best service. They obey the uniform dress code of the business suit. They relate to each other as competitors in the shared project of corporate global command and control economics. Globalization has created a new ruling élite, the ‘global managerial class’. It goes beyond the CEOs of big transnationals in manufacturing, services and finance. It includes supporting agents in public relations, software design, the news and entertainment media, what Charles Leadbeater has dubbed ‘The Weightless Society’. The new class imagines and projects itself as truly ‘global’. Their members see themselves as avant-garde, living in a brave new world of performance-driven individualism and the unrestrained operation of market forces. They see the real problems of society not as a consequence of global free enterprise, but the failure of mundane societies, embroiled in national politics, to step out of the dark ages of the mixed economy.

The global managerial class clusters in the business centres of truly ‘world’ cities, floating above nationally defined geography like stations in cyberspace. Their identity is built around a quasi-religious belief in orthodox economics, pushing the universal truism of unrestrained free-market economics on a global scale as the ultimate organizational principle for a ‘rational’ human society.

Critics point out the clash between global business and the social, historical and natural constraints of the human condition. More than ignoring its critics, the cult condemns them as ignorant at best and dangerous at worst. Even flirting with unorthodox criticism would signal a loss of competitive focus punishable by equal loss of status and remuneration.

Dialogue between the global managerial class and the critics of globalization is contained in a ‘spin’ operation, a public-relations attempt to co-opt. Ultimately, like all ideologues, the global managers have to condemn criticism as heresy.

For global enterprise to be managed, management has got to live globalization. This creates for the global manager a thin virtual-reality of his own, detached from rooted local existence.

The global manager not only lives for business, his life is business. His identity is shaped by 24-hour exposure to a narrow range of ‘objective’ imperatives, like the task of increasing shareholder value, regardless of context. He is a hard-pressed, time-constrained, crucial decision-maker, central to an international web of connections. Treated like a small child not to be confronted with the harsh realities of life, no price is too high to save the time and energy of the executive. The successful executive has nothing to fear, even if he does business in an African environmental disaster zone, with no infrastructure and civil war.

Like religious cultists who submit to one rigid interpretation of god on the promise of redemption and everlasting life, global managers insist that by handing over their destiny to the unrestrained forces of the market, they have actually gained full control over the restrictions and limitations of real life. But their comfortable detachment is an illusion. In the hire-and-fire practice of investment banking, stock market crashes can mean anybody becomes instantly redundant, including top analysts. Also, no-one is immune to insecurity and social upheaval.

Like an engineer improving the performance of cars as a response to growing road traffic, who never questions the future of transport and the power of the car industry, the corpocrat focuses on performance, not purpose and consequence. Problem solvers act as technocrats: concerned only with the detailed implementation of a given set of ideas, they allow themselves the illusion of objectivity. Asking not how the conditions for an optimal operation of the laws of market competition can be created, but for and against which interests these laws operate, is considered abandoning science in favour of politics.

The great irony is that free-market principles are not upheld by their greatest champions. Pioneers of liberal economic theory promoted markets that were diversified, competitive and nation-based. Today’s business managers seek to integrate, consolidate and globalize. Hiding behind ‘free markets’, corporate leaders and their consultants are concentrating market power within a handful of global conglomerates.

A version of this piece appears in the New Economics Foundation’s report on accountacy firms ‘Five Brothers: the rise and nemesis of the big bean counters’.

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