Tag Archives: organization

Jacob Dahl Rendtorff, Moral Blindness in Business. A Social Theory of Evil in Organizations (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020)

The market as an organization of economic interactions and as an idea governing our thoughts about the economy is both more complex than is usually accepted, and more limited. In this century, and in the last, economists and other theoreticians developed the market as an idea capable of explaining human interactions in general rather than just economic interactions. This has had unfortunate effects in our thinking.

One is that some started believing that homo economicus was a real person, not realizing that actual human beings are more complex than theoretical constructions assuming full information and perfect rationality. Another is that the easy presumption gradually gained widespread recognition whereby the State was the problem in the economy, while the free market was the solution to practically everything. Both these effects have turned out to be wildly misleading. On the one hand, human beings are more unpredictable and complex than theoretical constructions. On the other hand, in many instances, the State is the solution to social and economic problems, not the free market.

Jacob Dahl Rendtorff has written three interesting books on business ethics. The latest one, reviewed here, is on moral blindness in business. The idea, it seems to me, is to construct a narrative explaining moral evil in business. The way he goes about it is by taking his cue from Hannah Arendt and her analysis of moral blindness in her discussion of the Eichmann trials in Jerusalem in 1961. Arendt is one of the most influential political philosophers from the middle of the last century. She was a German, a Jew, who fled the Nazi State in Germany and ultimately made it to the USA. She was an early theorist about totalitarianism, but probably she is most famous for her description and analysis of Eichmann at his trial.

She originally wrote articles for the New Yorker about the criminal process that, later on, became a famous book. One of the things that struck her was how ordinary Eichmann was. He was not a moral monster, like Gorgias or Thrasymachus, or a racist, like a white supremacist. Yet, he believed that he was an ordinary man, doing his duty, following legitimate orders, and putting them into practice as best as he could. He was not an official who followed through his commands himself, but he left it to others to do what he had told them to do. Even though he went to the concentration camps, it is not clear if he ever saw what happened to the Jewish victims whose transportation to them he had made possible.

The moral blindness that Arendt detected in Eichmann was his inability to put himself into another’s shoes and the inability to think for himself about the moral legitimacy of the aims of the systems that he too put into operation. He organized the transport system from all over Germany, and from other countries as well, that moved the Jews to the concentration camps. He organized and was present at the Wannsee conference when this “Endlösung” for the Jews was conceived, and he knew from the beginning what all his work was about (p. 62).

What is remarkable about him is his ordinariness, how he seems to be a typical faceless bureaucrat, skilled at putting orders into practice but not worrying about the effects on those who had to suffer the consequences. It seems to me that this is the essence of moral evil as it is understood in this book. This analysis has a number of logical consequences that Arendt pursued, such as that moral disasters, even those of the magnitude of the “Endlösung” of the Nazi regime, could happen to anyone of us, or that the Nazi campaign was not a unique event that was nearly unfathomable because of its evil, but a result of human weaknesses that all of us might be subject to.

Rendtorff uses this analysis of Arendt’s and applies it thoroughly to modern businesses. He argues that modern organizations are subject to the same temptations and human frailties that operated in the Nazi system. Modern corporations that solely aim at securing profit for the owners can easily succumb to the same temptations as the Nazi bureaucracy did. You do not have to be a specialist in modern business ethics to know instances of moral weakness and moral evil. Just think of businesses that are run in such a way that, once or twice a year, a member of their staff is ostentatiously fired in order to keep the others in the staff on their toes. This is an example of moral evil in practice. The interests and dedication of the staff are irrelevant, if you can put fear into their souls; so, they do not object to anything that is asked of them and stick to their work.

Rendtorff is very knowledgeable about Arendt’s political philosophy and he discusses various issues that are relevant to what he wants to say, such as the modern understanding of evil. But it is puzzling to me that he does not discuss the difference between a totalitarian state and a democratic state incorporating a free market, in which the modern corporations operate. There is a major difference between the domination by the State of the whole society, as in a totalitarian system, and the limited government that can be observed in modern states. It is only when you assume that modern corporations do not understand that the very notion of the free market is a moral notion, that you get the weakness and immorality typical of a totalitarian bureaucracy. The important difference between modern democracies and the Nazi State is that the workers, in modern democracies, always have the option of leaving and looking for work elsewhere, however hard as this step may be in practice. This is morally important. Also, there are infelicities of language on nearly every page of the book. The publisher should have made sure of a good proof-reading.

These imperfections aside, this is an interesting book and a serious contribution to a real problem in the running of modern corporations.

Emmanuel Lazega, Bureaucracy, Collegiality and Social Change. Redefining Organizations with Multilevel Relational Infrastructures (Cheltenham: E. Elgar, 2020)

Bureaucracy, Collegiality and Social Change. Redefining Organizations with Multilevel Relational Infrastructures is a topical research providing a new theoretical perspective on the socio-political aspects of organizations. Methodologically, the book presents a novelty as it is conceived starting from two structuring logics in the analysis of the contemporary organizations, namely, bureaucracy and collegiality.

A very important part in capturing the a main aspects of reform, change and transitions in relation to the agency and functioning of the contemporary organizations is redefining them and identifying the best approach to their present-day realities: their multilevel structure and their cyclical network dynamics.

The book demonstrates a profound understanding of the changes taking place as well in the body of knowledge constituted around organizations, taking into account a complex context given by the newer phenomena shaping both the socio-political realities and our perception regarding organizational characteristics and transformations. in this respect, besides the dynamics implied by the digitalization of society, researcher Emmanuel Lazega, the author of the book, approaches organizations as multilevel networks influenced by the particularities of the relation between markets and societies, the impact of new institutions in political economy, the self-segregation of the elites, or the higher competition in matters of specialized theorization and science in relation to societies, markets and government. As the author notes: „Any book on the sociology of organizations must rely on the theory of bureaucracy, its characteristics and its twentieth century critique. This theory starts with Max Weber and Taylorian industrial bureaucracy, focusing on the main features of this ideal type: routine work, hierarchy, impersonal interactions between members and many others discussed by this plethoric literature, including the fact that bureaucratic routinization of production began with deskilling craftspeople and social Darwinist ideology.” (p. 7)

The roots of this investigation are represented by the emphasis of the crucial connection between the development of bureaucracy, the rise of the modern state and the constitution of modern corporations, as well as the relations with the context of the promotion of mass production and consumption and the critique of the Weberian and Taylorian views of bureaucracy. Mainly, the criticism of workers as automatons or “atomized robots”, or that employees work better in groups (which may happen, but not necessarily), the vision of organizations as static; the idea that the leaders and managers are rational. Instead, power, participation and coalition building are fluid, or in motion, or in course of development.

Social capital may or may be not identic with the relationships capital. Reciprocity and solidarity are experienced as varied “goods” and they may be distributed in various ways. In neo-structural sociology the matters resulting from individual confrontation of collective actions, as well as social interests, social claims and social discipline, at individual and at collective levels, are also important. In this respect, workplace relationships are “mobilized processes of generalized exchange; at the boundaries that the group has established for itself, based, for example, on exclusion(s) – among other manner of relating with others, our observation – and at the norms that its members are called upon to define and apply”. (p. 23)

Along with social networks and new forms of virtual, organized collective agency, bureaucracy attains therefore new sophistication levels, and they can be parameterized and managed digitally, while they are not depersonalized, organizing the very perception of work relations in a more nuanced and organized manner (p. 35, 96, 121). The organization depends on the accurate image and management of an organizational scheme of partners, contractors, subcontractors, clients, and employees, with specific interests and needs that can be always better described and better understood. New theories of stratification and “dynamic configuring fields” are involved in the explanation of organizational structuring and functioning, leading the author toward the metaphor of the multilevel spinning top for the multilevel, superimposed forms of collective agency, combining upper and lower organizational levels in order to accomplish a kind of synchronization correction for the relative oligarchical character driven by closed and collegial elites.

This multispin uses circular movements and trajectories of members – for example, mobilities in loops and revolving doors from public responsibilities to private jobs and back to public positions – to create an informal pecking order (metaphorically: the shaft of the rotating spinning top) that enables the most central among these institutional entrepreneurs to obtain formal foothold positions. They can then act as vertical linchpins and brokers between conflicting sides with different political definitions of the institution. The main idea of this mechanism is that when such oligarchic and dynamic positions of institutional entrepreneurs moving up and down (top-down collegiality) are stabilized by a supportive inter-organizational network (hence the crucial dynamics of multilevel dimension of the process), these entrepreneurs are able to maintain their centrality and interactions long enough to surf on – if not to avoid altogether – the unpredictable and conflictual politics of an electoral process. This mechanism thus helps them succeed in their institutionalization efforts in spite of being a small collegial oligarchy (…)” (p. 97) capitalizing upon collective, interpersonal and inter-organizational types of agency.

An important consequential aspect is the expansion of the entrepreneurial and organizational network with beneficial implications on performance and innovation levels. Another aspect is the organizational culture and the importance of “weak culture”, defined as “banal, non-instrumental, non-demanding, non-exclusive” (p. 142), crucial in relating otherwise scattered individuals and social groups in a wider community, more susceptible to entertain an open attitude, shaping the attitudes  about values in a more sophisticated and democratic way.

A fascinating discussion concerns the correlation among bounded solidarity, social niches and status competition, bringing up interest for “oppositional solidarities” and “top-down collegiality” within the relational infrastructures activated by various strategies. Often, a successful business means also maintaining a good reputation, that is, social status, within the interplay between social control and conflict resolution. In France, “consular” commercial courts have exactly this role. (p. 257) Individual judicial entrepreneurs are sponsored to ensure and to exert social control. The study of the multilevel dimension of markets emphasized a related effect, namely, “the strong link between the ways in which cooperation among competitors works as a ‘forth factor’ of production and the creation/reproduction of social inequalities in contemporary capitalist societies”. (p.177) Neo-structural economic sociology opens the perspective of markets behaving like organizational “tools with a life of their own” perpetuating and increasing inequality, mainly by mechanisms of cooperation among similar level competitors and against smaller, lower lever organizations, reinforcing the power of stronger companies, building up opportunities and resources and desolidarizing smaller players.

Organizations and their bureaucracies become more and more like collegial bogies, with bottom-up collegial bureaucracy and specific understanding of collective actions, freedoms, innovation, learning and responsibility; therefore aiming to be more and more closer to the template of swarms, both vertically and horizontally organized, self-organized, highly adaptable and efficient in their collective action. These models are now brought closer by digitalization, big data and social network data. The military image of the swarm is ready to be impressed into organizational and bureaucratic life. The danger brought by the indisputable benefices found in developing artificial intelligence algorithms that will further bureaucratize agency via the reification of multilevel relational infrastructures that minimize change and contestation, while weakening the regulation of inequality, autonomy and autonomous innovation in exchange for a predictable, more profitable and truly effective collective action. The model might be undertaken to reshape public space, political regimes and entire societies. The Weberian image of the “polar night of icy darkness” seems highly appropriate.

Bureaucracy, Collegiality and Social Change. Redefining Organizations with Multilevel Relational Infrastructures is therefore a remarkable synthesis of research associated to the latest achievements of the anthropological and sociological social networks and relational data knowledge. However, first and foremost the book is a lucid vision of the sensitivity of relational data, of the necessity to regulate private exclusive access to data, social engineering and defend a public and democratic national state and international power to guarantee and enforce the principles of open science and safeguard the autonomy of social sciences and their right to investigate, to critique and to tell the truth to power from unsubordinated, autonomous positions. These crucial ideas, which are also well-founded warnings, are convincingly based on a serious and impressive social networks and relational data knowledge.

Garrett Barden and Tim Murphy. Law and Justice in Community (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

The authors state at the beginning that they reject the idea that humans somehow are independent of each other and at some stage consent to becoming members of society; this is usually presented either as an actual historical fact or a conditional requirement on any public decision or as an idea of reason in Kant. The authors think of human beings as naturally social meaning that living in society comes naturally to humans and it is misleading or downright false to think that the primary fact about them is that they are separate individuals that at some stage decide to form a society. Society is part of human life from time immemorial and from the time that any human being is born she is a part of society; she would not stand a chance if she did not have a family to nurture her until she could provide for herself. A family is a social institution. From an evolutionary point of view many developed animals form groups where patterns of behaviour emerge from which human society may have developed. The point is that the question how or when human society was invented does not arise; human society was not invented, it is a basic, internal fact about human life.

One thing the authors discuss is the story behind Grágás (grey goose), the first written Icelandic law book. In 1117 the Icelandic parliament, Alþingi, decided that the law should be written down and published. Alþingi had been established in 930 and for nearly two centuries the laws were recited there during the weeks in late June when the parliament was sitting. It took three years to recite the laws in full so one third was recited every year; they were not all recited annually as it says on p. 1 in the book. Now the question is what is going on from the point of view of the law in this process from the settlement of Iceland in late ninth century AD, in 930 when the parliament was established, and the law recited until it was written down in the winter of 1117-1118? How should we account for this development of the law? The authors´ idea is that in any society there is something that might be called a living law which is not judge made law, positive law, in a sense state law, but the living law is the judgements and choices that people in any society make and become gradually accepted and approved in that society when they recur time and again. This process of gradually creating the living law is not formal in any sense, there is no formal debate or decree that establishes this law but it creates habits, practices, customs and mutual expectations that establish the jural relationships in that community. There is no sharp distinction between a legal realm and a moral realm. It is part of what the authors call “the communal law” or “the communal moral law” p. 3-4). So the living law is a moral tradition. Any moral tradition is such that some parts of it are implicit, others are explicit, and it is not possible to codify fully a moral tradition; there is no way that it is possible to write down all the moral rules and practices that make up a moral tradition. Historically the living law of any community is not written down, but it is a defining feature of the community and establishes entitlements which evolve through the interactions of people living together dealing with the jural demands that this imposes on them. Some of the entitlements may be written down when the communal sense of justice provides a basis for formulated law. Written laws can be either natural or conventional but according to these authors they are not understood as new laws imposed on the community, but are parts of the living law that emerges within the developing communal moral context. So the account to be given of Icelandic law until it was written down in 1117-18 is that at first it grew out of the concerns that the new environment in Iceland created, the judgements and choices of the inhabitants about their own lives and how they resolved their disputes, establishing mutual expectations, a sense of justice and jural relationships and social institutions like Alþingi. Ultimately this leads to the writing down of the law, but it does not mean that being written down created in any sense new laws, rather it was part of the living law of the community and had developed out of it.

This is a very interesting view of the origin of Grágás. I guess there may be differing opinions about how it squares with all the historical accounts that have been preserved about the development of Icelandic law until it was written down. But it is persuasive. This theory of the development of law is intended by the authors as a general account of how law develops and how various parts of the living law are related, so it should apply to any system of laws we care to examine at least in the European tradition. Their theory is also descriptive, it aims to explain law as a social phenomenon in terms of its function in human affairs. They avoid all normative assumptions in their theory. The third important feature of the theory argued for and applied in this book is a number of distinctions that are used throughout the book between the natural and the conventional, the internal and the external, the intrinsic and the extrinsic. I am not sure that the authors would be willing to call this a theory, but rather a method they use to figure out what is just.

The authors discuss many of the most important topics in modern jurisprudence such as justice, natural and conventional, ownership, law, force of law, natural law, justice and the trading order, to name some of them. There is no way in a short review to give the flavour of the analysis of these different issues but I want to mention one: justice and the trading order. This area is of great importance to modern societies and has been extensively analysed and theorised in various academic disciplines. One obvious question is whether there is anything to be gained from analysing the trading order from the Aristotelian perspective of the authors. The answer is yes; there is surprisingly much to be gained from doing so. The trading order is where reciprocal justice is the proper justice. The authors start by suggesting that “in the trading order free exchanges are reciprocally just.” (p. 91). They make another plausible assumption that it is only in the context of exchange and the trading order that reciprocal justice exists. The trading order exists only as a part of a wider, more complex social order and is constantly influenced by this wider order. Hence, there is no trading order governed only by reciprocal justice. The authors contend that if a trading order has developed one must first understand how it works to figure out what legislation is necessary. They also argue that it is a difficult question of fact whether the trading order can be centrally managed. It is the considered opinion of the authors that a trading order cannot be centrally managed. They are careful to point out that it does not follow from this that the trading order cannot cause all sorts of social problems that must be dealt with and that there are those who cannot sustain their lives by trading. The idea is that these are not problems of the trading order but must be dealt with by other means. The central idea of the trading order is that the two or more persons who want to trade must always be free not to for the exchange to be just. Any legislation and management, central or otherwise, of the trading order must respect this fact. It seems that any central management aiming to control correct the result of the innumerable exchanges of the trading order becomes problematic given these assumptions.

In modern political philosophy normative issues are contentious and important. Aristotelian political philosophy has not shied away from normative assumptions and issues. It is very informative to see the Aristotelian way of analysing political and jurisprudential problems working from different premises than is ordinarily done. This book is both radical and traditional and it is splendidly argued. It deserves to be widely read and to be influential.