Critical Management Studies and the Skeleton in the Car Park

With all the media hype surrounding the forthcoming Critical Management Studies conference, Martin Parker reminds us of something which might otherwise have escaped our attention

Some bones were found under a car park in Leicester recently. The City, County and University have all enthusiastically exploited this discovery for tourism and student recruitment purposes. The national media have played along, and a jamboree of nationalist nostalgia followed, with flayed stags on campus, clanking armour in the streets, and huge queues behind a brand new tomb in the local cathedral. Oh, and at least half the press releases from the University were given a regal spin. I was even asked whether I could write something on ‘Richard III and Management’. This is as close as I’m going to get to that.

The whole episode has been rather odd, and in some ways, a little disconcerting. The curious reverence shown to a long dead violent monarch, by the state, media and sections of the population, seems oddly out of place in a secular democracy. Even more so in the case of an University founded on the sort of progressive modernism which followed the world wars of the 20th century. Bending the knee with such solemnity to a dead King seems disrespectful to the notion that universities are free from such authorities, that their inhabitants should be free to research, to think and to speak without censure. We probably should have known not to be so naïve.

Thankfully, in a few months, the University of Leicester will be hosting an event which couldn’t be more different. In early July, our School of Management will be welcoming upwards of 500 delegates to the Critical Management Studies conference. The overarching theme is ‘alternatives’, and it combines at least 28 concerted efforts to collaboratively explore how the future might not be the same as the present. This present is far from a happy one. Inequalities of wealth and income are growing, wars and forced migrations continue, and the pack ice keeps melting. Business and the economy have a crucial role to play in producing and solving these problems yet most Schools of Management simply ignore them. Selling dreams of wealth and power for money, they continue to tell us that corporate capitalism works. Those who do well deserve their money while those who fail just didn’t try hard enough.

Alternatives to this prevailing narrative must be both pursued and promoted. How, for example, might democracy, localism and sustainability inform a different future? We should contrast co-operative forms of ownership and control with absentee shareholders and MBA trained managers. We should also contrast local business to gigantic corporations and short supply chains with the carbon emitting madness of containerization. Most importantly, a conference on the alternatives to market managerialism should contrast how the economy is run for the 1% with how it might be run for the 99%. This, it seems to me, is the sort of thing that universities are quite good at. As institutions which are, in principal, at arm’s length from power, we academics should exercise our freedom to explore ideas that others might find uncomfortable. Academic freedom, whether in the sciences or the social sciences, means being curious and unafraid. It might also mean helping people think about a new future rather than just repeating the past.

It was incredible that the archaeologists at Leicester found some very significant historical remains but there are few good reasons to mourn such absolute power. The powers of the present age dress in suits of cloth, not armour, yet they dominate the lives of the common people just the same. It’s only a conference, but our event demonstrates just how far we have come from the days of mediaeval kings. The lickspittle pomp of the ceremonies we have just witnessed provides a lamentable reminder of far we have yet to go.

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