Karl Marx

Last updated, 21 Aug 2014

Marx and Critical Management Studies

By Armin Beverungen


‘Marx’ is today a contested object in the business school. Much of the history and pre-history of critical management studies has concerned itself with figuring out the implications of the text signed with that name. The history of the reception of Marx in the business school can very broadly be summarised in three moments.

The first moment is one of the constitution of what later came to be known as labour process theory and what is regarded as the precursor to critical management studies (Hassard et al., 2001). The founding texts here are Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974) as well as Michael Burawoy’s Manufacturing Consent (1979). The starting point for both is Marx’s turn to the “hidden abode of production” in Capital Volume I, as they seek to explore the contemporary capitalist labour process. Where Braverman in a fascinating way analyses the seemingly irresistible degradation of work performed by management in the name of capital, Burawoy emphasises the complicity of labour in this very degradation by foregrounding the necessity of consent in addition to coercion. Much of the early labour process theory as well as Marxist organisation studies, e.g. in some of the early work of Stuart Clegg (1979), closely follows and engages with this reading of Marx in its understanding of management as a handmaiden of capital.

The second moment is one of caesura, in which much of what was taken for granted in a Marxist analysis of management and organisation is thrown overboard. In particular this occurs via a conceptualisation of the relative autonomy of management vis-à-vis capital, where the figure of the manager, and his or her position within the organisation, is foregrounded – in contrast to a structural analysis of the function of management within the capitalist relations of production. Theoretically, this shift is precipitated by an engagement with new theoretical resources, in particular French theorists such as Michel Foucault. Emblematic of this moment are Clegg’s (1989) “radical revisions” and David Knights and Hugh Willmott’s (1989) reconceptualisation of power “from degradation to subjugation”. This is also the time of the emergence of critical management studies, which is here consituted by a certain move away from anti-capitalism – seen by some as a political retreat (Hassard et al., 2001).

The fallout from this caesura may well constitute its own moment. A symptom of this is the continuing debate between Willmott and Peter Armstrong (the latest contribution being Armstrong, 2010) regarding the nature of management: here Armstrong’s Marxism meets Willmott’s post-Marxism. Elsewhere, Willmott (2005) engages the critical realist attempt to resuscitate a particular kind of Marxism. Across the Atlantic, others, such as Tony Tinker (2002) and Steve Jaros (2005), attempt to return labour process theory to the folds of Marxism. At the same time, Clegg et al. (2006) perhaps represent the most defined anti-Marxist position in critical management studies, where authors such as Parker (2002) remain much more ambivalent. Critical management studies, in this sense, is constituted by a plethora of positionings vis-à-vis ‘Marx’ and Marxism, with theoretical positions ranging from a rather conservative Marxism via a post-Marxism to an anti-Marxism, and related political positions ranging from an anti-capitalism and anti-managerialism to an embrace of management and even a denial of capital.

The third moment proper constitutes a ‘return to Marx’, in many ways despite the first two moments. Adler’s (2009) attempt to rejuvenate a particular early 20th century version of ‘paleo-Marxism’ is perhaps the most prominent, but also the least innovative, move to imagine a Marxist future for critical management studies. In particular the reception of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000) sparked a plethora of reengagements with contemporary Marxism. Notable here are Peter Fleming’s (2009) rethinking of a cultural politics of work on the basis of an elementary communism underlying all capitalist production, and Steffen Böhm and Chris Land’s (2012) challenge to labour process theory to once more perform a turn to the “hidden abode” of production – this time in the social factory. Much of the analysis of management and related functions, such as accounting (Harney, 2006), is here once again considered part of a capitalist machine of capture.

‘Marx’ therefore remains contested in the business school, and also central to a contestation of the business school itself, as can be witnessed for example in the way in which Stefano Harney’s (2007) politics of socialisation clash with what might be termed Michael Rowlinson and John Hassard’s (2011) ‘restrained’ Marxism. Yet despite this activation of Marx for a transformation of the business school, and the ‘return to Marx’ sketched above, what is thought and done in critical management studies in the name of ‘Marx’ still seems thoroughly conditioned by the institution of the business school and the university. As a consequence, it appears pale and poor, compared for example to the “thousand Marxisms” – as Tosel calls them – to be found outside the business school and documented in part in the Critical Companion to Contemporary Marxism (Bidet and Kouvelakis, 2008). Anyone reading ‘Marx’ today in the business school should therefore also look beyond critical management studies and let more of his spectres return to the business school.



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Marx Reloaded is a cultural documentary that examines the relevance of German socialist and philosopher Karl Marx's ideas for understanding the global economic and financial crisis of 2008—09.

More info on the film's websiteICA's website or Wikipedia