McGill University’s Henry Mintzberg has always been the most grounded, empirical and ‘political’ (in the sense of situating business and management within the larger context of society as a whole) of management thinkers. He has written about what managers actually do (react and fire-fight mostly), the nature of strategy (emergent) and the effect (harmful) of conventional MBA courses. He believes unshakably that management is a craft to be learned by doing and careful reflecting, inseparable from its context.
In recent years, Mintzberg has become steadily more disturbed by the direction that both management and business have been taking – the power and arrogance of business, and the greed and indifference to others of too many managers.
These concerns come to full flower, as it were, in his latest work, an ‘e-pamphlet’ entitled Rebalancing Society – radical renewal beyond left, right and center. As the title suggests, it is an urgent call for the Western economies, and particularly the Anglophone ones, to rethink the free-market fundamentalism that is leading them towards a bleak future, if not outright disaster. If the final stage of bondage, he notes, is when people no longer recognize they are slaves, then we are very close to it. We don’t realise how much we are imprisoned by the economic structures and institutions that we have allowed to close in on us over the last half century.
Mintzberg’s counterintuitive central thought, and it’s a persuasive one, is that we have been disastrously misled by the implosion of the Soviet Union and the supposed ‘triumph of capitalism’. What brought down the communist regimes, he argues, was not capitalism but their own massively unbalanced societies. Hopelessly skewed towards the monolithic state sector at the expense of the private and ‘plural’ or civic sectors, the Soviet bloc collapsed under its own dead weight. Unfortunately, tragically taking talk of the end of history (or the ‘end of thinking’, as Mintzberg prefers to call it) at face value, the West has made the reverse mistake of fetishizing the private sector at the expense of government and the plural sector. The result, paradoxically, is exactly the same. As the economist J K Galbraith put it, ‘Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite’.
The current imbalance is most extreme in the US. As Mintzberg notes, rebelling against authoritarian rule from Britain, the founding fathers took care to keep their own government in check with an elaborate system of checks and balances. ‘But this had the effect of weakening government overall, in favor of non-state institutions and individuals, especially those with economic wealth. By curbing power in one place, the constitution overconcentrated it in another.’
The balance was then well and truly tipped by the rise of the business corporation. Mintzberg pinpoints the grant of legal ‘personhood’ to corporations in 1886 as the first step on the route to today’s crisis, culminating in the Citizens United ruling of 2010 allowing corporate spending on political advertising. ‘[Personhood] has made all the difference. From the liberties for individuals enshrined in the American constitution sprang [today’s] entitlements for corporations,’ Mintzberg writes. In his landmark study of American society, Democracy in America, Alexis de Toqueville had written that the genius of American society was ‘“self-interest rightly understood”. Now the country finds itself overwhelmed by self-interest fatefully misunderstood’.
Mintzberg has been thinking about all this for years, and it shows. The text is full of nuggets – the hypocrisy of business urging governments to stop meddling in business while it spends ever more energy and time bending government to its views, the paradox of liberty leading to individualism whose externalities, both personal and corporate, overwhelm society and the planet, humans consumed by consumption, the commercial commodification of everything (as corporations become people, people become resources, the withering of the state, irony of ironies, under capitalism rather than Marxism)... There is an adrenaline shot in a sobering list of the social consequences of the Great Imbalance in the US, suggesting that the country is now ‘depreciating socially, and politically, and perhaps economically as well. Yet globally, it still continues to promote successfully the very model that has caused its own troubles domestically.’ There is an excellent, copious bibliography.
Where to look for solutions? Mintzberg is clear that radical renewal will not happen without the eventual participation of government and business: ‘Governments will have to receive clear messages from their citizens, and businesses must reject the objectionable doctrine that they exist for the shareholders alone.’ But being a large part of the current problem, they are too compromised to provide leadership, so much of the initial impetus must come from the plural or civic sector that de Toqueville set so much store by in the 19th century – ie us. Mintzberg insists that the emphasis on social movements to trigger some immediate rebalancing is not a search for an illusory ‘third way’, nor is he anti-business. What is needed is balance and a proper distinction between the three main sectors, none better or worse than the others, each essential in its own place. In this he invites comparison with another important Canadian thinker, the great Jane Jacobs, whose 1992 book Systems of Survival argued similarly for need to understand and respect the moral foundations of politics on one side and commerce on the other, the real disaster, she maintained, being to mix them up.
Mintzberg begins and ends his pamphlet with a quote from Tom Paine’s 1776 pamphlet Common Sense: ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again’. If that is to happen, Mintzberg is right: the most important word in that sentence is ‘we’.