Licence to Kill? Managing with Violence

Former Head of School, Professor Gibson Burrell, uncovers a series of uncomfortable parallels between managerialism and the militaRy

At first sight, it appears as if the discipline of ‘business and management’ has no room for a debate on ‘the organization of destruction’ and the use of well-considered techniques of administration in acts of unspeakable violence against fellow human beings (perhaps the CIA being only the most recent perpetrator). One might be content that these two areas are supposedly disconnected: surely management is about production, construction, good order and building for the future. Does not the destruction of human lives, goods, buildings and socio-cultural artefacts belong somewhere else – politics and military studies, for example? This separation does not bear close examination.

Even cursory investigation shows that, first, physical and psychological violence is enshrined in several management practices against staff, customers and competitors. Deaths of employees within work and those arising from the production and marketing of dangerous goods to customers plus attacks on competitors’ businesses through industrial espionage, arson and sabotage are all relevant here. Second, as Max Weber argued, rationality is often best expressed in developing the means of violence by and on behalf of the state. Third, as the early debates about Taylorism showed, the military arsenals of the world are the exemplary places for the development of new management practices of mass production, quality control and personnel practices. Fourth, as Zygmunt Bauman sought to demonstrate, the organization of death (of animals and some humans) lies at the heart of developments in mass production, mass consumption and the de-problematization of ethics. Fifth, several branches of Management are implicated from their birth in the prosecution of war, with ‘strategy’ and ‘operational research’ being primary examples. We might note that above the mighty doors of the Venetian Arsenale were written the words “Happy is the city that in times of peace thinks of war”. In its place we might suggest that “happy is the area of business and management studies that thinks of war”. Why? Because of the copious state and corporate funding that comes with a ‘war’ designated against anything.

In order to bring military studies, war studies and organization studies closer together, Professors Brian Bloomfield, Theo Vurdubakis and I are researching how contemporary business and management studies has warfare, and the licence to kill that it engenders, as a major ‘present absence’ in the field. We believe this interconnection, indeed interdependence, is worthy of recognition and debate.

Originally published at

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