Business Schools: Seminaries of a Failed Free-Market Fundamentalism?

15th September 2008 was the date when the sudden bankruptcy of Lehman Bros in the USA led to the domino collapse of major banks in the USA, Europe and around the world and triggered an as-yet unfinished sequence of low growth with widespread punitive policies of austerity, income constraint and shrinkage of basic social amenities and living standards.

The supposed causes of the meltdown have been widely sought, speculated on and pontificated about – banker/corporate greed, lax regulation regimes, complacent attitudes towards risk, global over-stretch, over-borrowed property speculation etc. Seven years on, these and other diagnoses fall well short of supplying any credible consensus on what remedial action and positive change might pre-empt future relapses.

In a web-post dated Feb 12th 2014 (‘Death and Resurrection of the Business/Market Model’) I insisted that some more incisive analysis was urgently needed…

“It becomes clear that the true causes of the meltdown go much deeper than the irresponsible behaviour of bankers, lenders and regulators and into the very heart of a failed, long-standing business model…”

This ‘business model’ asserted the primacy of ‘the market’ not only in corporate decision-making but increasingly across most domains of economic, public and social policy (including health, school and university education.)

The more serious commentators (Thomas Piketty, Paul Krugman, Robert Reich and others on the economics/inequality aspects; Michael Sandel (‘The Moral Limitations of Markets’) and others on the moral, political and philosophical implications) have penetrated more deeply but, so far, with little apparent impact on mainstream policies.

Oddly missing from this post-2008 soul-searching, however, has been any clear recognition or serious analysis of how such an all-pervading ideology of the market’s precedence has come to be so widely and fixedly implanted, not only in our corporate , managerial and related political elites; but progressively ‘evangelised’ across traditional borders and into the heartlands of the wider, once public, sectors of our societies. How could this have come to pass so little noticed or questioned?

Yet the fact is that, for over 100 years…

…a globally expanding system of ‘management education’, symbolised and spear-headed by the elitist ‘business-school’, has stood atop an expanding hierarchy of business institutions, management centres, think-tanks and other outreach facilities; the whole primarily geared to the corporation’s perception of its ‘needs’ and their furtherance.

And these ‘needs’ have been, especially since the Reagan/Thatcher years, progressively transmuted into the nation’s own.

Corporately invested and financed (and with public subsidy, though largely outside the public education domain and control ) the business school has become the most ubiquitous symbol of the globalisation of ‘business’ and the ascendency of its neo-liberal ideas on markets, economics and society.

The corporate establishment’s lobbying and policy-influencing capabilities, helped by media ownership concentrations world-wide, have further accelerated this assumed convergence of the ‘national’ with the sectarian ‘corporate’ interest; and, by dint of the murky TTIP negotiations (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) now afoot behind closed doors, our governments could soon be sued in special courts, outside their jurisdictions, for any serious deviations from the perceived policy interests of these cross-border behemoths!

Yet it is the burgeoning, supposedly independent, corporately beholden business-school-system, with its ‘management education’ satellites, which has arguably been most effectively and consistently engaged, for over 100 years, in the steady indoctrination of our established and emerging manager elites; not only in the professional mechanisms of ‘managing’ but also in the regressive ‘free – market and corporative’ ideologies which under-pin it.

The years leading up, more immediately, to the financial crisis of 2008 were, as Michael Sandel describes…

“a heady time of market faith and deregulation – an era of market triumphalism – which began back in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher proclaimed that markets, not government, held the key to prosperity and freedom”

Words such as ‘faith’ and ‘ideology’ for this ‘market-belief’ orthodoxy seem no longer merely the stuff of far-fetched satire. We have before us the recent saga of Lord Green, fluent mover between pulpit, boardroom and cabinet office, who presided – when Chairman of the global HSBC – over his bank’s massive programme of tax evasion and criminal behaviour for his rich clients.

Long a favourite of corporate-friendly government, he is now advocating MBAs for more of our vicars, presumably to give them a glimpse of what he considers the real world (and the true religion?).

…through its financial dependence on, and assumed spiritual identity with, the corporate ethos, and its relative freedom from public scrutiny and regulation, it has become the de facto incubator both of a discredited corporate/market philosophy and of the cadres which practise, sustain and disseminate it.

The suggestion is not that the Business School complex is part of some considered plot to subvert economic and social justice and democracy; but that through its financial dependence on, and assumed spiritual identity with, the corporate ethos, and its relative freedom from public scrutiny and regulation, it has become the de facto incubator both of a discredited corporate/market philosophy and of the cadres which practise, sustain and disseminate it.

As such it had a prime, though as-yet unexamined, influence on the disasters of 2008, and remains a weighty incubus on our social, economic and political futures.

For its own, and the public good, this would seem to be the right and necessary time for a more open and informed discussion and analysis of the business-school phenomenon. We are at work on this and, by June this year, when Oxford marks its own mere 50th year of ‘management education’, we plan to publish our needed, more penetrating look at both the local and international, century-old significance of these institutions.

© 2015 Ralph Windle