The emergence of managerial governance points to a more profound socio-institutional transformation than what it often implied in International Political Economy (IPE) and related fields. If discussed, the study of managerial ideas and behaviour has frequently been depicted as something centred on the ‘internal’ or ‘mechanical’ features of organisations, notably firms. Arguing for a fresh examination of managerialism has not been helped by the casual dismissing of management studies, and popular business books in particular, as a ‘lightweight’ field, even if there is some truth that such literature reproduces an uncritical conception of capitalism. At other times, as Sahil Dutta et al persuasively argue, when managerialism is addressed by progressive writers of different hues, it has often been wrongly equated with neoliberal intellectual thought. Inspired by dialogues within a special issue of Review of International Political Economy on the political economy of managerialism (Matthew Eagleton-Pierce and Sam Knafo, Forthcoming), I suggest here two ways to further develop this conversation.
The first theme dovetails with one of the key interests of Sahil Dutta et al: why is the managerial reflex now found in a wide variety of public and private institutional spaces? Managerial ideology lives off a deceptively simple premise: problems can be improved or even resolved if they are better managed. Who could disagree with such a tempting proposition? Herein lies a major way in which an abstract managerialism enters and embeds itself within many organisations. Like any aspiring ideology which seeks to dominate, managerialism searches for the major ontological desires, forms of knowledge, and institutional agendas which it will try to twist and reshape in its image. Managerial expertise claims to offer ready-made theories, templates, and buzzwords which, when applied, will enhance control over humans and material resources. As Knafo et al (2019) have explored elsewhere and retraced in Neoliberalism and the Strange Non-Death of Planning, the lineage of such thinking to the RAND Corporation and US military culture is telling, as seen in the enduring interest for new ideas on leadership. In a world beset by uncertainty and the prospect of being blamed, managerial toolkits offer proponents a kind of reassuring crutch to hold. Ambivalence and ambiguity can be tamed if one follows the managerial creed.
In this sense, managerialism certainly has its gurus, cheerleaders, and profiteers. The concept of a managerial class can, indeed, make sense when we explore how consultancy firms and senior officials have benefited to the expense of other workers and agendas (Seabrooke and Sending 2019; Whiteside 2019). But given the malleability of managerial ideology and its claim to be applicable to all organisations, the precise objective of such control is left open to local circumstances. Thus, managerialism can be part of organising commodification processes, but it could equally be directed towards other agendas operating at a distance from capitalism. For instance, one can see how the rise of performance management has become normalised in many international development NGOs, such as Oxfam. What was previously an alien discourse – ‘strategic planning’, ‘monitoring and evaluation’, ‘reputational risk’ – became increasingly naturalised from the 1990s onwards. The instrumental rationality of managerialism became fused with a normative rationality associated with activism. Playing the managerial game is now synonymous with the identity of a modern organisation (Eagleton-Pierce 2019).
The second theme concerns one of the more perplexing consequences of the managerial transformation: how such practices survive when faced with contradictions and failures. The deceptively straight lines of managerial reason are often distorted by revolts, miscalculations, and ignorance on the part of managers. Control can be illusory. Many will have witnessed such tensions and blowback in university settings, such as in Australia, the UK, and the Netherlands (Watts 2017). Even when these patterns are acknowledged by relevant parties, the need for managers to be seen to be in control, at the very least, serves as a powerful underlying motivation for reproducing managerialism. Part of any explanation for these outcomes would lie in the inevitable effects of institutional inertia. Rather than fundamentally question the logic of power accumulating in the hands of managerial cadres, a reformist sensibility can take hold where disappointments of the latest managerial agenda are recast as ‘learning experiences’. At other times, the managerial response to failure is to aggressively fight back, such as by deflecting and trivialising anti-managerial criticism or by firing workers who no longer fit the plan. Such moves have always been part of strategies of power and now fit comfortably within the contemporary managerial game.
An interest in efficiency within institutions and across complex systems is not necessarily suspicious. One can be pro-organisation but anti-managerialism (Parker 2002). Those who directly or indirectly contribute to the managerial vision of the world – from business school professors to private consultants to human resources directors – are not all blind to the deficiencies of their ideas and practices. Yet it can also be difficult pinpointing when ‘mere organisational enhancements’ segue, often via incremental measures, into the excesses of managerialism. Given that the managerial transformation is significant and often troubling, with uneven distributional consequences, it would therefore be wise for IPE to continue to unravel its properties and implications for the world economy.
Eagleton-Pierce, M., ‘The Rise of Managerialism in International NGOs’, Review of International Political Economy, https://doi.org/10.1080/09692290.2019.1657478.
Eagleton-Pierce, M. and Knafo, S., ‘The Political Economy of Managerialism’, Review of International Political Economy, forthcoming.
Knafo, S., Dutta, S. J., Lane, R., and Wyn-Jones, S., ‘The Managerial Lineages of Neoliberalism’, New Political Economy, 24 (2019), 2, 235-251.
Parker, M., Against Management (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002).
Seabrooke, L., and Sending, O. J., ‘Contracting Development: Managerialism and Consultants in Intergovernmental Organizations’, Review of International Political Economy, https://doi.org/10.1080/09692290.2019.1616601.
Watts, R., Public Universities, Managerialism and the Value of Higher Education (London: Palgrave, 2017).
Whiteside, H., ‘Public-Private Partnerships: Market Development Through Management Reform’, Review of International Political Economy, https://doi.org/10.1080/09692290.2019.1635514.