Category Archives: Writing

From the archives: Lists, rankings and the commodification of education

When academics do memes…

Academics are on strike, again. The marketization of universities, with the accompanying metrification of academic labour, has come in for plenty of scrutiny both from colleagues and commentators. We can see clearly that the whole package of market relations degrades our working conditions, our security, and constitutes an assault on our profession. That’s what the action is about. But these finer points still appear to be tricky for some to comprehend. Yesterday The Guardian reported that Universities are likely to be the next in line for Dominic Cummings’ special treatment, explaining that:

‘A recent report by the rightwing Policy Exchange thinktank, founded by Michael Gove and seen as close to government thinking, said the higher education sector was seen as “out of touch” and “a sitting duck” for the new government. It claimed universities had lost “the faith of the nation in some critical areas” and flagged familiar ministerial concerns about failures to protect freedom of speech on campus, so-called “low quality” degrees that offered poor economic returns for students, excessive vice-chancellor pay and degree grade inflation.’

The irony! Michael Gove’s own right wing think tank complaining about universities acting exactly as instructed by a decade of government diktats! For as surely as night follows day, these very concerns – grade inflation, overpaid VC’s, and lightweight courses – follow from the very market structures that have been imposed on the sector.

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Strike writing: on civility and solidarity [updated]

I wrote this in December 2019, facing a general election bogged down in Brexit, anti-Semitism, and dog-whistle politics; worn out by helplessness at the end of a year of political despair. The gains hard-won through our last industrial action seemed to be slipping away, our employers refusing to budge and the trustees of our pension funds treating us with contempt. We were furious. We took strike action for eight days and things changed. Talks restarted. We saw an apparent willingness to listen and heard sympathetic noises on matters that won’t cost too much or be easily tested. In the end, however, we have met with intransigence from our employers. We have made some progress, but not enough, and we are out on the pickets again. This time feels different: less anger, more quiet determination. It is difficult for all involved. I am genuinely distressed on the part of my students, who are suffering a severe interruption to their studies. I’m also persuaded by the argument that civility makes friends (thank you Dr Fergus Neville!) and we are standing on the picket lines with new comrades.

I took this post down for a while to reflect. But I see the very tactics that so provoked me played out on grander stages. In politics, for example, our Prime Minister urges us to be friends and unite Britian as he forces through the most divisive and hard-right political agenda in living memory. Be nice too easily means be quiet; civility remains a potent mechanism of control. We Brits are just too damn polite, overburdened by our bourgois heritage.

So here it is again in (nearly) all its intemperate rage

It’s Monday, noon. The morning has gone well: big turnouts on the picket lines, much solidarity from colleagues and students. In east Fife we stood in the fog and the dreich, and the bagpipes played; Stephen Gethins, our MP, turned up and wished us well and fussed my dogs, who are now staunch SNP hounds; our twitter is flooded with pictures of pickets and placards. The Second Great University Strike is underway. And now I’m home. It’s quiet, the dogs are sleeping off their exertions, and I am at my keyboard; I have things that I am trying to think through and, academic that I am, I do not know how else to do so. Strike writing.

The topic in hand is civility. Specifically, the repeated injunction from the institutions for which we work that we should approach this dispute in a ‘civil’ manner. At the risk of boring the reader, let’s recap for a moment why we are striking: a sustained assault upon our pension scheme, a significant real term drop in our salaries, inequalities of race and gender, casualization, temporary contracts, general workload and the accompanying audit practices. These are just the headline-grabbers that the union put on the ballot paper. Our profession is in tatters, with stress and overwork rife. Everywhere I hear that enough is enough, that something has snapped, that the social contract around higher education is not so much broken as in smithereens. Our employers’ refusal to negotiate has driven us to industrial action where we stand to lose eight days of salary in the run-up to Christmas. I am sure I am not alone in feeling pretty uncivil about this whole affair.

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Hong Kong protests and Brexit could both end up benefiting financial elites

[A short comment piece I wrote for The Conversation website]

Philip Roscoe, University of St Andrews

Protests in Hong Kong have captured the world’s attention in recent weeks, with demonstrators closing streets and the airport, and Chinese forces amassing near the border with a none too subtle threat of violent reprisal. The protests began in response to a new extradition law, but have spilled over into a general unease about the future of Hong Kong’s special administrative status.

This special status sets Hong Kong apart from mainland China in a number of ways. As well as enjoying various social and political freedoms, it has a free market economy and is one of the world’s biggest financial centres. Global finance has attracted a number of Chinese elites but has not benefited a large chunk of Hong Kong society.

But if Hong Kong’s protesters succeed in pushing back against the oversight of Beijing, it would serve to reinforce the benefits the elites already enjoy from Hong Kong’s economic arrangements. This parallels the situation in the UK, where financial elites could soon embrace a low-tax, low-regulation future following a no-deal Brexit driven by populist concerns about immigration and inequality.

Longstanding financial centres

Hong Kong and London share a common history and since the 1960s have flourished as offshore financial centres, acting in many ways as secrecy jurisdictions or tax havens.

Hong Kong’s financial sector was a creation of the British, who used it as a route into Chinese markets. It boomed following the opening of the Chinese economy. When, in 1997, Hong Kong returned to China, it preserved some of this offshore status as a special administrative zone. The beneficiaries this time were Chinese.

Hong Kong stores great reserves of capital in comparative secrecy, channels global investment into China – also in secrecy – and is a crucial part of China’s long-term plan to establish the Renminbi as a global reserve currency through offshore markets. The local “dim sum bond market”, issuing RMB denominated debt, has been a remarkable success, with the equivalent of more than US$100 billion of capital circulating.

Finance hub. Shutterstock

Hong Kong has been implicated in shadier dealing. Investigative journalist Nicholas Shaxton puts it bluntly: “Hong Kong is where most of the corruption in China is accomplished.” Other scholars see Hong Kong as an amalgam of onshore and offshore finance, with a strong legal system, tax treaties, and a robust financial market.

London’s success as a global financial centre has also been driven by its status as a hub for offshore financial services, a position greatly supported by its strong connections throughout Britain’s former empire. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, London became home for the “eurodollar” markets. These were lending markets operating in US dollars, located in London but considered to be beyond the purview of the UK’s legislation.

London-based lenders could charge higher rates than the national currency controls of the time allowed. The United States benefited as the depth and liquidity of eurodollar markets supported the dollar’s reserve currency status; international banks arrived in droves and the City, London’s financial district, thrived. Regulators on both side of the Atlantic turned a blind eye, quietly admitting the economic benefits the markets bestowed. Even the Soviets invested.

Masters of reinvention

Both London and Hong Kong are centres of perpetual reinvention. Following the financial crisis, the City’s innovations have included managing the wealth of the global super-rich and an arrangement with the Chinese government to develop the offshore trading of the RMB.

In the same way that Hong Kong’s protesters fear Chinese control, a number of Brexiters claim the EU comes with too much red tape. Interviewing financiers for research into London-based markets, I found overwhelming support for Brexit, largely driven by a distaste for increasing layers of regulation.

It is certainly the case that Europe has never been comfortable with London’s activities as a conduit for international funds. No one expects the EU to maintain the City’s “passporting rights” which allow firms based in the UK to trade freely across the EU. And the mundane but profitable business of settling euro transactions is likely to be pulled within the bloc.

But there is much more to financial markets than regulation. The City’s remarkable talent for reinvention flows from the nature of financial markets themselves.

History shows they are fluid entities constantly reshaping in response to political happenstance and technological or economic advances. Markets put down roots in the shape of dense social networks shaped by bonds of trust and expertise, and in the material infrastructures – from wires, phones and screens to upscale offices, restaurants and hotels – without which they cannot function. Advantages of status and connection become embedded. When new financial frontiers open up it’s those well-placed who benefit.

Here’s the irony. Hong Kong’s protesters seek political freedom, but whatever happens in politics, it is likely that the economic advantages of the elite will be preserved through the social and material architectures of its markets.

Brexit, meanwhile, has been driven by concerns over immigration and inequality, but the no-deal on the horizon offers something else. If the new prime minister’s rhetoric of “boosterism” and “freeports” is to be believed, the City will be entirely unencumbered by regulation, free to roam the high seas of international currency flows. Here too, only the financial elites will benefit.

Philip Roscoe, Reader in Management, University of St Andrews

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Deficit, what deficit? The politics of financial fact

Our pensions are under threat. You will be familiar with the headline numbers – pensions slashed by over half, to a level where the very survival of the university sector seems in jeopardy. I have done the numbers, like everyone else, and they make grim reading. But how did this whole mess come about? At root, it’s a struggle over risk and who should carry it. The deficit itself is the result of some particular choices made by regulators and administrators. Its very existence is a reflection of the broader struggles over the marketizing of universities and the social contract for public services, and it’s this battle that academics are fighting, whether we know it or not.  Continue reading

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The rise and fall of the penny-share offer : A historical sociology of London’s smaller company markets

For the last two years I have been working on a ‘historical sociology’ of two stock markets established in London in 1995 in response to a series of rule changes at the London Stock Exchange (LSE). Roscoe report cover

The first, the Alternative Investment Market, or AIM, was set up by the LSE. It was established as part of LSE chief executive Michael Lawrence’s ‘seven-point plan’ for the repositioning of the Exchange as an engine for economic growth focused on the UK regions. AIM was also, in part, a reactive move allowing the Exchange to deal with competitive threats in Europe and at home, particularly growing activity under its own Rule 535. It has acted as a proving ground for many smaller companies and plays an important role in the political positioning of the LSE.

The second, OFEX (renamed PLUS in 2004) was privately operated and driven by commercial demand. Originally operated as a trading facility, it achieved legal recognition as a ‘designated market’ in 2001, and then as a Recognized Investment Exchange (RIE) in 2007. As OFEX it coexisted with the LSE and rode the dotcom wave; as PLUS it served as a vehicle for a market rebellion against the LSE. It struggled to maintain a commitment to its original small company constituency and to compete as a trading venue of choice against the Exchange. While AIM has flourished, PLUS faltered after the financial crisis of 2008, and my narrative finishes in 2012 with the sale of the PLUS RIE licence to ICAP, now NEX.

My research is based on interviews with members of the small company stock market community, as well as extensive documentary records. I have compiled a narrative account of these markets designed primarily for interested academics and for members of the professional community. It’s freely available and you can download it here. My narrative begins on the old floor of the LSE prior to the 1986 ‘Big Bang’ and finishes with the failure of PLUS in 2012. I conclude with some brief reflections upon the challenges and opportunities facing stock markets serving the smaller company sector, as illuminated by this history.

Please feel free to download, circulate, and quote. Suggested citation: Roscoe , P J 2017 , The rise and fall of the penny-share offer : A historical sociology of London’s smaller company markets. University of St Andrews.

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Confessions of a ‘critical marketographer’

Last week I attended the 12th International Ethnography Symposium, at the University of Manchester, and had the pleasure in speaking to a group of fellow ‘marketographers’, whatever they may be. In fact, I think that was rather the point of the stream, organized by Daniel Neyland and Vera Ehrenstein (both of Goldsmiths University) and Dean Pierides (University of Manchester). My thanks to Dan, Vera and Dean for a great two days. In the meantime, here’s my talk:

When I mischievously titled my abstract ‘Confessions of a critical marketographer’ I had in mind, not so much Augustine, but those bawdy films of the 1970s with names like Confessions of a Window Cleaner, all suggestion and double entendre but no more than the occasional glimpse of flesh on camera. This, I thought, accurately represented the state of my ideas, or lack of them. But of course the confessional tale is one of the categories of ethnography highlighted by John van Maanen in Tales of the Field. It is, he says a response to the realist abstraction of earlier scientific ethnography, focusing attention on the fieldworker as a means of supporting authority. It is typically told from a shifting perspective and in a character building narrative, ending on an upbeat note: a justification, in fact, of the realist work that follows it, or more usually precedes Tales of the Fieldit, because in 1988 at least, one could not write a confession until after the realist account. Van Maanen goes on to introduce the Impressionist tale, a narrative account depending on interest, coherence and fidelity, offering impressionistic moments or fleeting glances of the subject at hand: the audience is invited to relive the tale with the teller, to work out what is going on as the narrative unfolds. It seems to me that this move, described by van Maanen in 1988, it is roughly where we are at when it comes to marketography: glimpses and impressions, stylishly drawn, are appearing alongside more realist tracts. If I had to give an example, I would site Muniesa and company’s achingly stylish oeuvre ‘Capitalization’. Though whether we Brexit Brits could get away with something so assuredly Parisian is another matter… Continue reading

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Evolution and organization, part 2: more sloppy language, dodgy organizational theory, and Weber being right all along

Spring is in the air. The sky is blue and the garden robin is lining his nest-box bachelor-pad with moss. At such a time the thoughts of man turn naturally, like those of the robin, to matters evolutionary, and in particular to the long-awaited second half of my blog on organization and evolution. I posted the first part before Christmas, though never made it to organization, waylaid instead by a lengthy detour into Richard Dawkins’ decidedly wonky metaphysics.

Robin

Pseudo-evolutionary chatter in organizations: it seems to be everywhere. We don’t bat an eyelid when Amazon talks about its ‘purposeful Darwinism’, a yearly cull of the worst performing employees. It doesn’t make us shudder to hear that this is based on constructive criticism offered to bosses via secret feedback mechanisms. Final year undergraduates cheerfully tell us about the ‘rank and yank’ mechanisms in the firms they hope to work for, never considering that things may not go to plan and they might themselves be yanked, not ranked.

Management scholars of a critical bent should be worried about this kind of thing, so I’ve set out to elaborate a genealogy of these ideas. It’s one of many possible lineages as the evolutionary tropes have themselves evolved and spread out in their own diasporic family tree; Continue reading

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Evolution and organization, part 1: Sloppy language and dodgy metaphysics

Image result for the god delusionA few days ago, a scientist friend remarked that he was reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. What’s more, he was really enjoying it. It really spoke to him, he averred. This awkward conversational moment set me thinking once again about a topic that I’ve been pursuing on and off for the last couple of years: trying to get a hold of the reasons for importing evolutionary thinking into management thinking. It strikes me as odd when a firm can describe its ruthless annual cull of the weaker performers (as identified by colleagues through anonymous feedback mechanisms, which sounds a very fair and reasonable method to me) as ‘purposeful Darwinism’. Not just as odd, but also morally charged and strategically dishonest, as if ruthless pursuit of shareholder interest can be justified by the subliminal message that those under-performers – the weak! – are dull herbivores, contentedly fattening themselves up until something more leonine, in this case the go-getting manager – the strong! – comes along and scoffs them. Mind you, this week in politics has testified, among other, darker things, to the enduring image of the strong-man in the popular imagination.

Richard Dawkins, of course, is at the epicentre of this particular earthquake of popular thinking. But I was struck by my friend’s comment because the God Delusion is a truly bad

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Sacrifice and the crypto-theologies of management

Sacrifice and management are not words that one expects to hear in the same sentence. But – as those who read my earlier post will know – I’ve been reading theology in my spare time, so when Marcia Pally invited me to talk on sacrifice and the economic world at an interdisciplinary workshop I was happy to accept. Here’s an expanded version of my Huberlin-logo.svgcontribution to Marcia’s workshop ‘Sacrifice: Biological and theological investigations for economic and military/political praxis’, held at Humbolt University, Berlin, 16-17 June 2016 funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and the Theology Faculty of Humboldt University-Berlin. Many thanks to both funders and to Marcia for her kind invitation. This piece was first published on the Telos website.

“Sacrifice, or at least the discourse of sacrifice, is a recognizable aspect of popular management discourse and management scholarship of the ‘post-bureaucratic’ variety, especially popular in America from the 1980s to the 2000s (Child, 2005; Peters, 1992; Peters & Waterman, 1982). The absence of bureaucratic structures of command necessitates other forms of authority, and notions of sacrifice form part of the symbolic armoury of the post-bureaucratic chief executive – though, of course, post-bureaucracy is itself a symbolic myth more than a practical solution (du Gay, 2000). In this talk I will set out some aspects and suggest, playfully, that there are crypto-theologies at work in management discourse and scholarship; I will finish by connecting these to the sacrifice and excess inherent in neoliberal forms of organisation.

So let me start with two exemplars. The first is American businessman Lee Iacocca, Iacoccacelebrated for his self-sacrifice in saving the struggling automotive giant Chrysler for a salary of $1 a year. Certainly, Chrysler received government bailout – some $1.5bn in loan guarantees and huge military orders of trucks, but Iacocca put the company’s turnaround to his own sacrifice, and its inspirational effects on those around him. The second is Mark Zuckerberg, who has committed to give away 99% of his holding in Facebook stock – worth $45bn dollars, in his lifetime. What is interesting from the perspective of sacrifice is his decision to do so through the legal form of a limited liability corporation, and I’ll return to this point later on.

Both of these are very high profiles of management sacrifice; both are accompanied by other, less newsworthy, everyday sacrifices – the jobs lost in Chrysler’s reorganization, or Facebook’s value built on the unpaid contributions of millions (billions?) of users (Scholtz, 2013). This kind of discourse speaks to a very specific notion of sacrifice – one that is calculative, strategic, and self-aware. It is part of the armoury of the charismatic or transformational leaders vaunted in management literatures: typical findings include that self-sacrifice leads to the attribution of charisma, the establishment of legitimacy the encouragement of follower reciprocity, an increase in organizational commitment and team efficiency and a decrease in perceived autocracy (Śliwa, Spoelstra, Sørensen, & Land, 2013). Continue reading

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The stranger, the wager and the ethics of office

I recently travelled down to the School of Management at the University of Leicester to give a talk titled ‘The stranger, the wager and the ethics of office’. With a bombast designed to obscure my lack of confidence on the topic, the abstract staked my skin in my own wager that arch post-modernist Richard Kearney and Max Weber, high priest of rationality, could somehow be made to speak to one another. In the event, though, I played it cool and confessed the project to be very much work in progress. My good colleagues at Leicester listened helpfully and offered many interesting comments questions. After glass or two of local beer and a fantastic Leicester curry to finish the evening, I returned home full of ideas and enthusiasm. Academia isn’t always such a tough job.

Here’s a lightly polished version of my notes for the talk.

‘Many thanks for inviting me here today to share some thoughts and ideas with you. The project remains at a very early-stage, but perhaps there are the makings of an interesting paper. You will have to tell me what you think.

weber

Max Weber

As some of you may know, my research is inspired by Michel Callon and the performativity/market studies program, with a particular interest in market-type arrangements as organisational devices and all their attendant consequences. By consequences, I mean the moral dimensions of market-type arrangements and their effects upon personhood. You may wonder what leads a scholar of management to this particular topic. But I wasn’t always in a management school. Misspent undergraduate years as a theologian left me with abiding interest in the nature of good personhood, and a conviction that neither good nor personhood can be abstracted from context or described by universal, rational rules. You can see, I hope, how a management scholar with a background such as mine can arrive at the conclusion that organisation and personhood are irrevocably linked.

There are three unexplained phrases in the title – the stranger, the wager, and the ethics of office. I’ll work through them all, and by the end of the talk you’ll have a sense of what I’m up to, I hope. Let’s start with the ethics of office, which of course comes from the work of Max Weber, particularly as represented by du Gay (2000, 2008).

Yikes, you might say! How can Weber possibly sit with Callon’s actor network constructivism? In fact, it sits more comfortably than you might think: Callon explicitly casts his work in the Weberian tradition, for Weber the anthropologist is interested in the ethical possibilities of action open to persons placed into various life spheres, where the ethical character of individuals is determined by institutional constraints. (du Gay helps us distinguish between the anthropologically inclined Weber, and the Weber of rationalist theory whose formalist-substantivist distinction has been used to front various kinds of critical political economy, doing Weber something of a disservice in the process).

The crucial point is that for Weber, and Callon too, good character means being able to live up to the ethical standards embedded in one’s office. This idea of specific, ethical practices, irreducible to common principles, ‘appears quite foreign to those for whom a common or universal form of moral judgement is held to reside in the figure and capacities of the self-reflective person’ (du Gay 2008, 131). Weber can be seen as a late practitioner of an earlier tradition – the ethical tradition of office – where office-holders are personae, bundles of instituted rights and duties.

But there remains a problem: if ethics are embedded in particular offices, rather than the person of the moral agent, how can we talk of business ethics at all. How can we attempt to establish normative commonalities that might transcend, for example, the office of the arms dealer, or bond trader? To put that another way, how can we stop ourselves from falling into anything-goes relativism, where the sole merit attached to a job is the discharge of the technical requirements of that role? Continue reading

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