The politics of being apolitical

By Martin Vogel

Some years ago, I attended a meeting on whether executive coaching could help make society better. I mentioned a Marxist critique of the crisis in capitalism that I had recently read. Before I even managed to share any insights that I’d found relevant, one of my associates brushed aside my contribution – asserting something along the lines that we didn’t want the Stasi in the UK (a sentiment with which I naturally concur). He seemed to want to restrict the conversation to the role of business in promoting environmental sustainability. The episode defined for me a sensibility in working life that holds to faux-apoliticism as a badge of professionalism. In this view of the world, there’s a safe agenda of social change, which allows a degree of corporate virtue signalling around our shared interest in planetary survival, but forbids the potentially more divisive discussion of wealth and power and the role of organisations in sustaining them.

This distinction is increasingly hard to sustain. The backlash against a capitalism that consigns whole communities to the backwaters is recognised as a factor in both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. This year, the Grenfell Tower fire gave us a grotesque demonstration of where apolitical collusion with the apparently natural workings of the economy can lead. Not just the circumstances that led to the fire but the local authority’s inability to respond to the disaster revealed a hollowed out state, in which an over-financialised approach to management overwhelms the ability of organisations to meet basic human needs.

The news that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is launching its own inquiry into the Grenfell fire is therefore an encouraging development. The head of the Commission, David Isaac, said would explore questions including the extent to which the state has a duty to protect its citizens:

“Grenfell for most people in this country, particularly in the way the government has reacted, is a pretty defining moment in terms of how inequality is perceived… I think it was a national moment that defined how certain parts of society experience the state’s public provision of housing and also how the state responds.”

Reasserting a duty to protect is likely to run up against the long narrative of efficiency which has seen the state, over three or four decades, abdicate this duty as more and more of life is subsumed into the market society. This development was itself the outcome of a consciously political campaign to counter the post-war settlement around state provision of welfare and education. In an essay in the New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch describes how the rise of mass-democracy alarmed wealthy Americans who saw that electorates were likely to be pre-disposed to supporting government programmes that offered them services and wealth redistribution. They funded academics to carry out the intellectual weightlifting that would provide arguments that could persuade Americans to eschew such programmes. Today, scores of corporations – including Amazon, BP, Coca-Cola, Facebook, Google and Microsoft – sponsor a lobbying group that provides boiler-plate draft bills to state legislatures to ensure minimal regulation in how business operates. The outcomes of these developments are the gig economy, in which employees are treated as self-employed contractors with no collective rights, and a society in which people are construed as consumers rather than citizens and on their own when things go wrong.

It’s a testament to how successfully the efficiency narrative has become the common sense of our age that it is regarded as politicising management conversation to question it. But whenever the justification of efficiency is made, it is necessary to ask: efficient for whom? That question is insistently put on the table by Brexit and by the Grenfell community demanding justice. It also arises in developments such as the mounting concern in higher education over vice-chancellor pay and mis-selling and the reigning in of Uber’s activities in London and Sheffield.

It’s delusional to think that the political context in which organisations operate can somehow be bracketed out of leadership. While it is most certainly political to bring questions of power and social justice into leadership conversations, it is also political to adopt a supposedly apolitical stance. By asking political questions, an organisation has the opportunity to reflect on its responsibilities beyond its own economic interests. By ignoring them, it is de facto aligning with existing dynamics of power and inequality and perpetuating them.

Even The Economist, the house journal of free market advocacy, recognises that there is much to be learned from the questions on power put by Marx:

The essence of his argument is that the capitalist class consists not of wealth creators but of rent seekers – people who are skilled at expropriating other people’s work and presenting it as their own. Marx was blind to the importance of entrepreneurs in creating something from nothing. He ignored the role of managers in improving productivity. But a glance at British business confirms that there is a lot of rent seeking going on. In 1980 the bosses of the 100 biggest listed firms earned 25 times more than a typical employee. In 2016 they earned 130 times more. Their swollen salaries come with fat pensions, private health-care and golden hellos and goodbyes.”

Over the weekend, Ben Macintyre drew an analogy between politics today and the collapse of the Roman republic (£) in Cicero’s time. He quotes the parallels identified by an American author, Mike Duncan:

“‘Rising economic inequality, dislocation of traditional ways of life, increasing political polarisation, the breakdown of unspoken rules of political conduct‘, as well as ‘a set of elites so obsessed with their own privileges that they refused to reform the system in time to save it.‘“

The ground is shifting under those privileges. But it’s not too late to reform. Coaches don’t have the answers to big political questions. But they can help leaders break the habit of avoiding them.

Hat tip: Dick Pountain.

Image courtesy Chris Devers.