I have a pretty good time reading Barbara Ehrenreichs Bright-Sided at the moment. She stands in that great, American tradition of non-fiction writing where the anecdotal is but a starting point and each page expands upon the merely personal and creates something general. Moving from the concrete to the abstract, if you will, even though Ehrenreichs theoretical and ideological underpinnings are perhaps not all that clear and perhaps this is to make the book easier to swallow for the public – or perhaps that is also the limits of her own insights.
There are sudden flashes that make you go: Aha. She hints at a connection between the rise of finance capitalism (circa mid-70s, at least in the USA) and the wave of downsizing, rightsizing and outsourcing and what not, and the maniacal focus on the bottom line, year by year, quarter by quarter, day by day, and – at the very same time – a shift away from what suddenly seemed like old-fashioned, fact-based management towards the cult of the super-human CEO that intuitively and inexplicably just knows and makes all the right turns. Perhaps a Steve Jobs could be one of those (although I believe that there was much more to his success than charismatic personality) – and perhaps Steve Ballmer, in his incarnation as an all-dancing, all-screaming corporate clown shows that the desire to be charismatic does not make you so. Still, she also notes the sad decline of Tom Peters from management guru to boxer-shorts clad weirdo? Except, perhaps, for the fact that Peters is still revered and people still search for excellence.
I am not sure what all that means. Is it the rise of finance capitalism what triggers this change in attitudes towards management? And, if so, why? It is tempting – or even unavoidable – to think there must be some connection, but it is much more difficult to figure out what the causality might be, if any.
Private equity is, however, something that is intimately connected to finance capitalism. It is been a short span of time since the first large-scale leveraged buy-outs to our present world, where merry bands of marauding investors roam the streets in search of companies that they can buy, settle with debt, gut, and resell. And enjoy being written up as good guys that help weed out bad companies and so on and so forth. It is true, perhaps, that from a strictly Marxian POV, they do what they do as parts of a larger machinery – maybe what is called finance capitalism, and not with any larger personal responsibility that that of the shark that eats the swimmer. It is all in their nature. Except maybe not. Even from a POV that is favorable to capitalism as such, these actions actually do not work. Not in the long run. True: they help create a pool of labor that is willing to work for minimal wages. But these peoples values as consumers of goods is nil – or only as good as the credit they may have left. Probably not much. And if our ideal was some sort balanced, more egalitarian, mixed economy – private equity is, indeed, the pits.
But nevermind. This was supposed to be about the book. What is really interesting is how Ehrenreich sees the relentless positivism, the self-help books, the personal coaches, and so on and so forth, as so much mumbo-jumbo. As we descend into the wonderful world of late capitalism, capitalism itself loses any pretenses of rationality, and becomes positively relativistic. Religion and spirituality come back to haunt us, and when we lose our jobs, due to cost containment, we only have ourselves to blame. And so on and so forth. Mitt Romneys fake smile and immensely vacuous personality is perfect for this age and could have been iconic.
Except he was not elected. There seemed to be a limit, after all.