Is This our Neoliberal Meritocracy?


I know many people who are truly amazing.  They think outside the box, they practice an art, they connect to community and to land, they have passion for some goal, they can hold a humorous conversation and be great company in any context.

And many tend to be ‘underemployed’.

I find this very, very curious. Isn’t the cream supposed to float to the top – at least in the sense of being closer to the inspiration and big decisions?

Under conditions of tyranny it is easier to act than to thinkMost of these amazing people are not the dull conformists who keep the trains running (sorry, I know that is important).  The schedulers are the same people who now get promoted to positions where it isn’t operational scheduling that is the necessary attribute, but thought and the ability to create a motivated, adaptable team who genuinely care about the direction, rather than just the task.  Thinking strategically and adaptively requires an understanding of culture and having both a broad and long term view.  You need more than technocratic spreadsheets for brains.  Seeing a bigger picture recognises potential opportunities and threats, and of the wider system feedbacks you will not find within a spreadsheet.  That sort of capacity to both see and think is increasingly lacking, in both the individuals we have promoted to the top, and in the organisational cultures technocrats and megalomanians promote within.

We have raised acting above thinking, tactics above strategy, lies above truth, dispassion above passion, technocracy above art, tyranny above freedom, my current expedience above your hopes and dreams of tomorrow.  And where is morality?  Or is simply where the supply and demand curves meet on the two dimensional graph?

Raised acting above thinking.pngWhy does this happen?  Why do we promote the excellent train schedulers above those who have a bit of free-thinking art and connection in their lives?  Perhaps Hannah Arendt on the rise of totalitarianism has it right.  Under tyranny, it is far easier to act than to think.  Caring becomes a career threat; one of the great dystopian literary themes.

We have to think about this.  Have we shifted to a form of totalitarianism where thinking is discouraged?  Have we shifted to exactly the opposite of a meritocracy?

Yet we are told we live in a meritocracy.  This is, frankly, a lie.  I have seen less and less merit at the top.  I once worked in a public sector whose staff genuinely cared about service and New Zealand, had no concept of separating managers from staff (no one was The ideal subject - Arendtcalled ‘manager’; you were senior, principal, deputy, officer in charge amongst other officers, etc.), and where you got brownie points for thinking and where there was explicit concern for your personal development and career path if you had a particular personality and skill set.  Your art was nurtured, encouraged and promoted.

We genuinely admired the competence that rose.  That went from the 1990s after the State Sector Act 1988 started to kick in.  And then the rot accelerated; because while A-Grade people hire A-grade people, B-Grade people hire C-Grade people, and they in turn hire D-Grade people until ……..

I’ve worked in the resulting rigid hierarchies where the top ‘managers’ were separated into largely two types (with bright exceptions who were generally looked at sideways).  The first type were those who were incredibly dull and concerned about their positions.  Administrators.  Not thinkers.  Some were good train schedulers but completely divorced from big picture outcomes and incredibly focused on tiny measured outputs.  Little results, not big achievements – Just tell me what to do, I don’t want to know about greater purpose.  I’ll go in any direction, so long as you instruct me where to step.

Grey box utilitarian buildings.jpgBeing particular and obedient gets promoted.  And with that comes reductionism and the machine.  The solution to a flood is to build higher stop banks, not build water holding capacity in the upper landscape.  Deal with the symptom you can measure, not the root cause you need a conceptual mind to see.  The solution to a drought is a simple – a dam.  Measure only one thing and spin a story to defend your small idea.  The solution to P is to declare war, not ask multiple questions “why?” to dig into the social system and, god forbid, immeasurable psychology of belonging and hope, or culture or art.  Utility trumps grace.  Stark grey boxes replace the sense of place you can build with a tree, birdsong, good company and good coffee.

Resistance-is-useless-VogonWith conformity comes rigidity – and any demand for immediate innovation or adaptation results in a headless chicken panic (change!! uncertainty!!!), and any questioning dialogue about how we are going relative to a purpose resulted in shock, more rigidity, denial, anger and blame, reference to the manual, intakes of breath, and Vogon guard behaviour where Resistance is futile!

And then there were the second type, megalomaniacs, who played the game to rise.  Like the train schedulers, not particularly bright, usually very narrow, also taking any dialogue as dissent and personal attack.  And often in serious need of dealing with some deep wounding personal issues about self worth.  Invading Poland, Abyssinia, Libya and the Baltic States is the usual therapy they prescribe themselves – or just build a physical monument to mammon.  Ozymandias built a statue in the sands.  Other build an irrigation dam.

I was blown away by Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.  A thing of pure beauty and depth.  He made a distinction about how we live our lives – a life of power or a life of being – the way of nature and the way of grace.  Both the megalomaniacs and the train schedulers use the way of nature as their management style – only want to please themselves and so build and demand command The way of nature and graceand control of a minutely regulated machine with hierarchical layers of instruction and the expectation of blind obedience.

None use the way of grace, the building of a ‘can do’, open-hearted, adaptive team.  Personal ego doesn’t matter, it is the purpose and being above us all that acts as life’s normative rudder.  A team committed to an outcome, where ideas and dialogue are a way of being, an esprit de corps, the very essence of high performance.  Yet I’ve heard such approaches explicitly referred to as “bad man-management” (yes, man) by those who subscribe to command and control.  Allowing dialogue was apparently a sign of weakness.  You instruct.  They obey.

This is partly McGregor’s Theory X versus Theory Y management.  Theory X presumes people are inherently individualistic, selfish and lazy, and so set up structures and procedures to control.  Theory Y presumes people naturally want to be a part of a community and do a good job, and so focuses on freedom within a framework, and a culture of resilience and performance in the context of a wider purpose and way of thinking and being – a kaupapa.

We know we are in trouble when X is the way.  You may note the association with some Manaakitanga - mycommunitiesassumptions of Neoliberalism; “there is no such thing as society, just a collection of individuals.”  Look after number one.   Assume that is the way.  Never think that there are such virtues as Manaakitanga, Whanaungatanga, Kaitiakitanga.   Never imagine that we could have a world that is better because at the centre of it all is not control, or a desire for power, or selfish ends, but an Ethos of Care.

Neoliberalism and the authoritarian and petty Way of Nature go hand in hand.  Neoliberalism, and a sense of belonging and the purpose to care and create something bigger than ourselves, are mutually exclusive.  You can have or the other, but not both.  One extracts, the other creates.  One demolishes, the other builds.  One represses the meaning of life, and the other looks to meaning as the core of things.

I think Neoliberal Economics has not only degraded the concept of community and care,

and discouraged questions about purpose,

and displaced a culture of deeply critiquing assumptions and the consequences of short-term selfish actions with a perverse faith in greed and expedience ….

…. it has also actively fostered the rise of autocratic hierarchy.

exit_voiceDialogue is dissent.  Only the megalomaniacs and the train schedulers rise.  And for the rest, we have as Albert Hirschman argued, three options: We can Exit, we can Voice in the hope of effecting change, or we can become actively or passively Loyal to the growing power of the dispassionate machine.

But when the D-graders (and Z-graders) and megalomaniacs are holding the reigns, what then?

I once had a CEO say these words to me after I was discussing the importance of an engaging and purposeful culture over organisational structure, and how the constant restructurings under Neoliberalism adversely affect morale, a quality culture and performance (a wise friend once renamed ‘restructuring’ ‘DEstructurings’ after we had seen babies thrown to the winds, and bathwater preciously coddled).

The CEO said in dismissal of my concerns about morale, “You can have high performance or high morale, but you can’t have both.”  I was incredulous.  Conversation was pointless after that.  If you advance that sort of belief, then you can have absolutely no faith in the organisation’s future.  If voicing doesn’t work, you have to exit.  Loyalty to that idea would eat your soul.

We have created less adaptive, less thinking, less committed places… built more on blind obedience than foresight, thought and adaptability ….

…and there is less and less room for my friends who are truly amazing; who exited for the sake of their souls.

The Neoliberals claim they are Work will set you freethere for ‘freedom’, while in the meantime they construct signs over the factory gates with new versions of Arbeit Macht Frei.

And when there is no one left Voicing from within because they have either Exited or become Loyal for the sake of their mortgage …… what then?

Chris Perley

Chris Perley has a background in embedding himself in our landscapes and fields, in management, policy, consulting and research relating to land use, the environment, provincial economies and communities.  He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

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2 Responses to Is This our Neoliberal Meritocracy?

  1. Clive Anstey says:

    I really enjoy your blogs but usually don’t have time to comment. This time I can’t resist.
    As usual, you put your finger on a critical shift in institutional structures from the mid 1980’s. For better or for worse we accepted the need for institutional stability up to the mid 80’s and the administration of policy and procedures was a central function of agencies. Good administration required people of a certain type and inclination, people who would hold the line and uphold the status quo. This could stifle innovation and lead to a certain inertia. The restructured organisations of the late 80’s abandoned the centralised administrative functions which were farmed out to consultants or devolved to individuals across the agencies. Collective purpose and accountability to shared objectives went out the window.

    ‘Policy’ no longer reflects values deriving from democratic processes (tedious as these may be) but rather reflect the ideology of an ill-defined minority lurking in the shadows.

    From a land management perspective some form of ‘administration’ is critical if only to keep track of the ‘status quo’ or resource condition. Without the information the proper administration of resources provides we end up with random ‘improvements’ that, at best, serve short term gains for minorities. Effects based resource management is fine if you understand what is being affected. All too often we don’t; being a change agent is far more exciting than administering the status quo.

  2. cjkperley says:

    Reblogged this on Chris Perley's Blog and commented:

    More on the theme of Neoliberalism, and what enormous damage it has done to the very culture of New Zealand society and our organisations. We are far less encouraging of talent, wisdom and thought. Our country is less a meritocracy than it once was, and we should remember that when we see immoral wheeler dealers with knighthoods, and those who have exited today’s concentration camps for the sake of their souls.

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