Managing democratically: A contradiction in terms?

Since the turn of the year, I’ve all but abandoned a couple of pieces I’ve been composing, feeling self-indulgently that I’m not saying anything new or that others have expressed the same ideas much better in the past. The first of these focused on the question of hope and despair, which gives you a hint of my mood. Any road I’ve given myself a good talking to and am back on track. However, I’m travelling this next week plus I’m preparing a talk on ‘A World Without Politicians’ for an audience on Crete. Hence, to fill in the gap, I’m recycling a piece from 2007, in which I reflect on the possibility of being a democratic manager. I’ve left it more or less in its original form, which means it opens with an anecdote about Tony Blair – still amusing and relevant, I think. In the midst of the present Brexit mess and the roles being played by Teresa May and the rest of the parliamentary circus, it would be easy to find a parallel example from today.

Ta to globalresearch.ca

MANAGING DEMOCRATICALLY: A CONTRADICTION IN TERMS

Contrary to past hopes and even past successes in the project to create a just and equal society, today’s Britain remains hierarchical and bureaucratic to its core.  Bureaucratic centralism is the order of the day. To take but an example unearthed recently, you may or may not be surprised to hear that in the first eight months of New Labour’s reign the Cabinet took only one collective decision.  Tony Blair had absented himself to attend Church. Thus John Prescott presided over the dilemma of whether or not to go ahead with Millenium Dome. One can only imagine the anxiety expressed in the furrowed brows of ministers, ostensibly let loose to think for themselves.  In the end, the Cabinet decided in a leap of imagination that the final decision was best left to the Prime Minister, perhaps especially because he’d been in touch with his Saviour. According to the Cabinet Secretary of this period, when the Cabinet met the first question was ‘what are the issues of the week?’ as defined by the leadership, followed by the task of identifying ‘what spin should we put on them?’  The cabinet never debated nor determined policy.

Does this suffocating scenario ring any bells when it comes to thinking about Youth and Community Work?  For me, it resonates with conversations with workers across the country, who describe staff/team meetings as ‘being told as much as they are going to tell you and then doing as you’ve been told’.  Critical discussion about policy and practice is increasingly conspicuous by its absence. Of course, you might well rejoinder that this is inevitable. Despite its past and even present rhetoric about participation and involvement, Youth and Community Work reflects increasingly a top-down manipulative model with all its arrogance and waste, symbolised by the embrace of so-called ‘new managerialism’ by many of its officers.


Against this tide of conformity, I want cussedly to argue that it is vital to resist this blinkered way of seeing things.  I want to suggest that it is the obligation of anyone who claims to hold to such notions as ‘democracy’, equality and justice’ to aspire to be a manager committed to openness, to critical debate, to collective decision-making – to making supposed principles of youth and community work a reality.  Now some of you, up to your ears in the mess of practice, might be inclined to think I’ve lost my marbles. Indeed those of you, who know my love of Greece and worried about my mental health, might be excused for suggesting that in return for the Elgin Marbles I should return to my senses. And yet, my proposal is not all talk without substance.  All manner of mistakes and lapses aside, from my first managerial post as a full-time worker back in 1974, through to the strain of being a Chief Youth and Community Officer through the 1990s, I sought consistently to be a democratic manager in practice.

So for the sake of our discussion, and at the risk of over-simplifying complexity, I want first to suggest some essential ingredients in a democratic recipe and then recognise the numerous ways in which the democratic cake can fall apart.

A Democratic Manager:

  • Should refuse the right to manage, the notion that your workers should do as they are told.  For it is necessary to ask in whose interests are you managing. Are you turning in to serve the agenda of Gordon Brown, of the Chief Executive, of the Head of Service or whomever, or to serve the young people and the communities within which you work?
  • Should trust his/her workers.  Call me naïve but you should think the best of them until pissed upon, although you would hope to head off this humiliation!  In this increasingly misanthropic society, where evidently you can trust no one (see the problematic impact of Protection and Risk strategies on the character of Youth & Community Work) the democratic manager should be a philanthropist, from ‘philanthropos’ in Greek, a lover of humanity. But to be philanthropic is not at all to be easy-going, seeking a comfortable life, wanting to be everyone’s mate.  Rather the opposite. For the democratic manager wishes to be part of creating an atmosphere within which everyone feels able to question, criticise and, when collectively strong enough, resist orders from above.  To do this is to make your life far from rosy.
  • Should be committed to furnishing workers with the fullest information about what is going on and, together with them, ensure that a consistent in-service educational programme is maintained, focussed on raising collective understanding and consciousness.  To take a banal example that, say, at every other monthly team meeting, there is a commitment to extend the gathering into the afternoon so that issues can be discussed in depth.
  • Should be committed to telling the truth.  To amend a famous phrase of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, “being able to explore together what might be the truth is revolutionary”.  This is profoundly important to my eyes (and I’ll touch on the dilemmas soon), but just trying to be truthful has significant repercussions. Why?  Because it is the very antithesis of the bureaucratic capitalist managerial outlook within which dishonesty is so deep-rooted that its day-to-day manifestation is barely recognised.
  • Finally, but this list is not exhaustive; the democratic manager must stand by and argue for the collective decisions about how policy and practice should unfold.  She or he should see themselves as the representative of the staff team, accountable to the collective for their actions.

I’ll stop there.  This rough sketch invites perhaps the charge of being fanciful and utopian.  I don’t think so, but it is a perspective which is buffeted by stress and strain from above and below.  My own practice in the hurly-burly responded inevitably to shifting pressures and changing circumstances.

Obviously, the effort to manage democratically will be greeted with hostility by the majority of those in senior management.  They will scoff, sneer, and conspire in attempting to undermine the democratic project. They are without doubt threatened by its presence.  The attempt sheds light on the incompetence of their own authoritarianism. I won’t say much more about these people, ten a penny, as you will all have examples of the bullying that masks their own insecurity and fear.

Ironically though, there will be those with more nous, who will recognise that ‘democratic practice’ if sufficiently monitored and controlled (so that it doesn’t get out of hand) is to be supported.  In the name of ‘recreating civil society’, they are both allies and enemies.  The space opened up should be seized, but alertness to being co-opted, to the seduction of incorporation is vital.

But at this moment what I want to stress most is that the biggest threat to the nurturing of democratic practice is ourselves.  My efforts to be a democratic manager were forever haunted by the responses of the workers themselves. And this brings us to a profound dilemma for all of us desiring radical social and political change.  As of now, the ruling class, its bureaucracy, seem to be in control. Understandably, given the retreat of the social forces which gave capitalism a bad time in the 20th century, they wish to impose their imaginary neoliberal norms onto us.  To put it crudely they want us to settle down as obedient, passive, satisfied but never satiated consumers.  As far as democracy goes, whilst intoning the word endlessly, they are inimically opposed to its resurgence. We can hardly complain that the rulers rule.  That, so to speak, is their function. More pertinently we must ask of each other, why do we allow ourselves to be ruled?

Back to my efforts to be democratic in Youth and Community Work, a constant tension revolved around workers wanting to be managed.  I remember vividly many arguments with workers who demanded angrily that I managed them. ‘For fuck’s sake, Tony, tell me what to fuckin’ do!’  The process of collective decision-making is demanding. It seems to consume time, a constant criticism from those antagonistic to its intent. Although my own opinion is that much more time is wasted under authoritarian direction as workers whinge endlessly about how crap their managers are, basking in hopelessness, utterly demotivated and fed up. On the bright side, my experience too is that many workers gain confidence and strength from involvement in direct and collective democracy, and are bonded by the sense that the decisions are theirs and no-one else’s.

How do we learn to be democratic?  In what ways, through what process can we reach informed judgements on political matters about which, as Castoriadis puts it, there is no science. There is only one way. It is by doing democracy, by way of argumentative debate, by moving to collective decisions, through the experience of putting these decisions, for better or worse, into practice and through a constant process of collective self-criticism.  Thus I think a fundamental task in resisting the bureaucratic view that we are objects to be managed, incapable of making decisions for ourselves, is that we grasp any opportunity to come together as subjects, as creative actors.  For those in Youth and Community Work, the question of how to manage is precisely such an opportunity. I would venture that we have a political obligation to do so. Not to do so seems to me to collude with the powerful. As Malcolm Ball often underlines, the present regime gets away with its behavioural programme because we, the objects of its control, are not the social force we have been in the past. Trying to manage democratically is an important contribution to recreating collective opposition, dissidence and resistance, to becoming again a social and political force.  At the very least it’s a venture worth arguing about. . . . . .

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‘What has Cornelius Castoriadis to say about Youth Work’ in http://www.youthandpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/youthandpolicy_105-1.pdf

Participation and Activism: Young people shaping their worlds
Kalbir Shukra, Malcolm Ball and Katy Brown in http://www.youthandpolicy.org/y-and-p-archive/issue-108/