Not Saussure

November 26, 2006

Managerialism and Blair … anticipated by Michael Oakeshott

Filed under: Blogroll, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 11:12 pm

Via Stumbling and Mumbling, what Chris Dillow rightly calls ‘an excellent article’ by Bryan Appleyard in The Sunday Times about the dire, and astronomically expensive, effects of government’s obsession with the cult of the management consultant; Appleyard concludes,

That Blair was sold a pup in 2003 is nothing against Blair, and he is not to be criticised for wanting to circumvent the more glacial procedures of the civil service. The whole thing has simply been the result of a collective delusion: that there are quasi-scientific, objective ways of managing human affairs that transcend all considerations of culture, ethos and environment. Consultants sold this lie, government bought it, and we’re paying for it.

In the comments, James Higham, of Nourishing Obscurity, asks

where does get one’s expertise from then if you don’t listen to the professionals?

My reply is a bit too long, I fear, for Chris’s comments section, so I’ll try to give my answer here.

Michael Oakeshott, in his essay Rationalism in Politics, distinguishes between technical knowledge, which can be codified as a set of rules and instructions (e.g. a cookery book) and practical knowledge, which can only be gained by exercising the activity in question. And this, Oakeshott says, is as true of politics as it is of anything else.

In Oakeshott’s account, the rationalist sees the value of only the first kind of knowledge; that can be codified into a rational system. Practical knowledge he doesn’t just undervalue; he cannot see it at all, other than as a collection of archaic practices that get in the way of the modernising project.

In answer to James’s question, you get an aspect of your expertise in running an organisation from your experience of working in that field and running it. You buy in expertise in particular areas — you get a lawyer to draft your contracts and logistics specialist to manage your distribution system — but you don’t ask a management consultant to tell you how to run your company and reduce your job to using your management skills to implement his recommendations.

Blair, it seems to me, is Oakeshott’s ‘rationalist politician par excellence; Blair uses the rhetoric of ‘modernisation’, but it amounts to pretty much the same thing:

much of his political activity consists in bringing the social, political, legal and institutional inheritance of his society before the tribunal of his intellect; and the rest is rational administration, ‘reason’ exercising an uncontrolled jurisdiction over the circumstances of the case. To the Rationalist [Moderniser] , nothing is of value merely because it exists (and certainly not because it has existed for many generations), familiarity has no worth, and nothing is to be left standing for want of scrutiny. And his disposition makes both destruction and creation easier for him to understand and engage in, than acceptance or reform. To patch up, to repair (that is, to do anything which requires a patient knowledge of the material), he regards as waste of time: and he always prefers the invention of a new device to making use of a current and well-tried expedient. He does not recognize change unless it is a self-consciously induced change, and consequently he falls easily into the error of identifying the customary and the traditional with the changeless. This is aptly illustrated by the rationalist [modernising] attitude towards a tradition of ideas. There is, of course, no question either of retaining or improving such a tradition, for both these involve an attitude of submission. It must be destroyed. And to fill its place the Rationalist [Moderniser] puts something of his own making–an ideology, the formalized abridgment of the supposed substratum of rational truth contained in the tradition.

When Oakeshott talks of ‘the Rationalist’, he has in his sights someone who approaches politics with an ideology, a rational and scientific understanding of society and its organisation, a hand book of politics with which to understand society. Primarily, he’s talking about Marxists and socialists. Blair, however, manages to go to a step further; he’s dispensed with the ideology and just wants to run things more efficiently. He doesn’t particularly know, it seems to me, where he wants to go; he just wants to run things in a more modern, 21st century manner. Is this not Blair to the life —

The conduct of affairs, for the Rationalist, is a matter of solving problems, and in this no man can hope to be successful whose reason has become inflexible by surrender to habit or is clouded by the fumes of tradition. In this activity the character which the Rationalist claims for himself is the character of the engineer, whose mind (it is supposed) is controlled throughout by the appropriate technique and whose first step is to dismiss from his attention everything not directly related to his specific intentions. This assimilation of politics to engineering is, indeed, what may be called the myth of rationalist politics. And it is, of course, a recurring theme in the literature of Rationalism. The politics it inspires may be called the politics of the felt need; for the Rationalist, politics are always charged with the feeling of the moment. He waits upon circumstance to provide him with his problems, but rejects its aid in their solution. That anything should be allowed to stand between a society and the satisfaction of the felt needs of each moment in its history must appear to the Rationalist a piece of mysticism and nonsense. And his politics are, in fact, the rational solution of those practical conundrums which the recognition of the sovereignty of the felt need perpetually creates in the life of a society. Thus, political life is resolved into a succession of crises, each to be surmounted by the application of reason’. Each generation, indeed, each administration, should see unrolled before it the blank sheet of infinite possibility. And if by chance this tabula rasa has been defaced by the irrational scribblings of tradition-ridden ancestors, then the first task of the Rationalist must be to scrub it clean; as Voltaire remarked, the only way to have good laws is to burn all existing laws and to start afresh.

Consequently, he’s at the mercy of the management experts, who purport to offer solutions for these ‘practical conundrums’ like, for example, children

The predicament of our time is that the Rationalists [who started long before Blair, of course] have been at work so long on their project of drawing off the liquid in which our moral ideals were suspended (and pouring it away as worthless) that we are left only with the dry and gritty residue which chokes us as we try to take it down. First, we do our best to destroy parental authority [because of its alleged abuse], then we sentimentally deplore the scarcity of ‘good homes’, and we end by creating substitutes which complete the work of destruction.

Oakeshott wrote that 1947! And this

And it is for this reason that, among much else that is corrupt and unhealthy, we have the spectacle of a set of sanctimonious, rationalist politicians, preaching an ideology of unselfishness and social service to a population in which they and their predecessors have done their best to destroy the only living root of moral behaviour; and opposed by another set of politicians dabbling with the project of converting us from Rationalism under the inspiration of a fresh rationalization of our political tradition.

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  1. Excellent. How about this for a theory. The original managers saw management as embedded in a particular practice; Thomas Cook in organizing travel, Henry Ford in making cars etc. Consultants and Blairite managerialists, by contrast, see management as an independent practice, with codifiable principles that can (and should) be applied everywhere. The question is: what evidence is there that this is true?

    Comment by chris — November 27, 2006 @ 1:26 pm

  2. I’m very interested in these sorts of ideas about Blair’s government as technocratic. Two comments. First of all, Blair sells himself as ideology free but in fact he has a very strong ideology – the efficiency of the private sector. This relates to my second point. Is this managerialism not just an extension of this private sector knows best ideology? You can’t get civil servants or anyone to do with government to make these decisions, you have to go the people that businesses go to – the management consultants.

    Comment by Dan Goodman — November 27, 2006 @ 5:23 pm

  3. I’m not really qualified to answer Chris’s question because I don’t know enough (anything, really) about the history of management theory. Certainly sounds very plausible, though.
    I see what Dan means but I think it’s more complex than that, and that it has to do with the push towards e-government. If it’s OK with you guys I’m going to have a think about this and try to write something over the next few days; the problem with automating administrative processes is that, unless you really know what you’re doing, you end up doing exactly what Oakeshott complains of — you extract the technical knowledge, which can be codified (and coded) reasonably easily but it’s very easy to lose, because you don’t really acknowledge it exists in the first place, the practical knowledge and experience of the people who’ve been making the system work and without whom it wouldn’t work — as you tend to find out the hard way when you come to test your shiny new system.
    I need to think this through a bit and also, because it’s something of which I have professional knowledge, I’m going to have to be a bit careful about some of the examples I use; I do take client confidentiality very seriously indeed.
    Watch this space.
    In the meantime, via the Adam Smith Institute Blog (much to his chagrin) The Yorkshire Ranter has a very good piece on How Not To Build a Computer System for the NHS

    Comment by notsaussure — November 28, 2006 @ 12:05 am

  4. […] In the comments to a piece wrote recently about Blair, Managerialism and Michael Oakeshott, I rather rashly said I’d try to develop the connections between Blair’s style of managerialist government and e-government. This looks as if it’s going to turn into a magnum opus, so this is part the first; an account of how business process are automated in commercial environments — how to do it and how not to do it. This is something of which I have some professional knowledge, particularly as it relates to legal and financial services. Later in the week, I’ll attempt to explore the ways government has seized on these developments as a magic solution to the problems of government, suggest why — incompetence in IT procurement apart — government tends to get hold of the wrong of the stick when it looks at computerisation as a solution to its problems, and suggest reasons why Mr Blair and his colleagues are particularly prone to fall into obvious traps whenever they go near IT projects. […]

    Pingback by Government modernisers, or why ‘We’ve ordered a new IT system to solve the problem’ isn’t what you want to hear; Part 1 « Not Saussure — November 29, 2006 @ 10:15 pm

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