Learning to talk to one another – politics and practical judgement

I went to hear Prof Colin Crouch promote his new book The Knowledge Corrupters: Hidden Consequences of the Financial Takeover of Public Life at the Institute for Government.

Crouch’s thesis is that the financialisation of public institutions reduces the meaning of what they do to a limited number of numerical targets and performance indicators often of a financial kind. This has the effect of also reducing the spectrum of knowledge we need fully to be employees, citizens and customers and constrains expert judgement. It has the effect of trumping all other valuations of particular organizational or social problems with one supposed truth, that of the bottom line or a financial target.

One example he gives of the consequences of financialization from the UK is the monetary incentive offered to GPs to refer more patients with suspected Alzheimer’s disease for further medical tests. The incentive is problematic on a number of fronts: although it is offered on the basis of encouraging behaviour which politicians deem to beneficial to the public as a whole, it nonetheless implies that GPs would not refer patients without such a financial reward. It enacts a theory of motivation at odds with the medical profession’s own values: the overwhelming majority of doctors would not consider it either necessary or desirable to be offered money to refer someone for tests who needs them. Additionally, in Crouch’s terms it has the potential for corrupting expert knowledge as well as creating perverse incentives. Crouch is not implying that professionals need no scrutiny or don’t need managing, but he does argue that financial targets, and numerical targets more generally, are a crude measure of what is really important in specific situations when the work is complex. It is a very crude, mistrustful intervention to bring about a greater focus on potential Alzheimer’s sufferers.

When the discussion started after Crouch’s presentation it became clear that there were a number of senior professionals present who complained about the gradual erosion of their scope for action over a number of years, and following ‘reforms’ of public services by governments of all hues. The government has created artificial markets where none have previously existed, even by setting up ‘purchasers’ and ‘providers’ in the same service. The same is true of the higher education sector in the UK: in the eight years since I have been an academic the number of forms I need to fill to do anything has proliferated, and I am hedged around by risk assessments, often of a financial kind because of the uncertainties which markets create.

Anyone who works in a managerial organization has probably also experienced the crisis of confidence that managers seem to have in employees exercising their practical judgement. Privileging targets and financial outcomes also demonstrates a distrust of negotiation of what we take to be the good in any given situation. In contemporary managerial organizations all goods are subsumed within the dominant way of thinking of the financialized organization. In doing so, managerialism both suppresses particular kinds of knowledge, especially phronesis or practical judgement, the ‘what to do’ in any given situation, and particular forms of engagement about what is important knowledge i.e., politics with a small ‘p’, the ‘how we might decide’.

Nearly 80 years ago Karl Mannheim[1] agued that politics is particularly evident when an area of social life is not yet settled and routine: when we experience ‘tendencies and strivings in a constant state of flux’ to try and settle the matter. He noticed the way that bureaucracies try to cover over questions of politics and value with an appeal to administrative rationality, and assume that all political problems lend themselves to administrative remedies, oblivious to the fact that current bureaucratic procedures are also the product of previous struggles over value. In the present disposition and in many domains of organizational life, the emphasis of targets and financial reporting reflects the dominance of a particular understanding of administrative rationality resulting from a particular power figuration, and in this sense is ideological. It is also highly abstract and presents one way of dealing with the world as the only way, and so covers over contestation.

For Mannheim, there is no ‘view from nowhere’ on situations in flux: in other words, all points of view on the situation are partial and informed by our particular social position. There is no universal position to be imagined in the abstract through reason. In Mannheim’s terms our point of view is informed by social background, a perception which we might now understand as overly deterministic.  But in order better to resolve complex social situations Mannheim argued that we need to bring all the partial points of view into play, including our own, rather than denying them. One of the reasons that Mannheim gives for his argument against abstracting is that the kind of knowledge we need for resolving problems arising from particular concrete situations is that it is impossible to separate the knowledge we need from the specific context in which it arises. Abstracting and systematizing of course has its value, but not, he argues, for developing insight into situations which develop from a particular set of circumstances and are a product of them. To separate the two out is to do violence to our understanding, he argues. This is a similar insight to that developed by the pragmatists, especially John Dewey.

This idea that our partial points of view, our prejudices if you like, are vital for understanding the flux and change of social life, is explored by scholars Adam Sandel[2] and Bryan Garsten[3]. The first explores the philosophical basis for our prejudice against prejudice, and the second explores the history of the rhetoric against rhetoric. Both make a case for the importance of trying to convince each other through politics and persuasion of the strength of relative value claims. They try to rehabilitate the importance of practical judgement. In so doing they are, in my view, pointing to the importance of politics and persuasion in every day organizational life. We need to take the time to talk to each other and share our partial views of the world and find space for exercising our practical judgement about things which matter to us.

In brief, and to pursue Garsten’s argument, the case against distrusting our judgement started in the early modern period with Hobbes. Garsten argues that from the perspective of a philosopher writing amid the English civil war, the imperative was to find ways of binding human beings together in a social contract where they didn’t resolve their difficulties by fighting each other to the death. The solution, Hobbes suggested, was to put our faith in the sovereign: to submit to the king so that paradoxically we could all enjoy freedom. Meanwhile, Rousseau was also concerned to find ways of preventing mankind’s natural fanaticism by appealing to what binds us together, our place in nature, rather than the authority of men:

If the laws of nations could, like nature, have an inflexibility that no human force could ever conquer, dependence on men would then become dependence on things again; in the republic all of the advantages of the the natural state would be united with those of the civil state, and freedom which keeps man exempt from vices would be joined to the morality which raises him to virtue.[4]

Rousseau puts forward the idea that we could convince each other that the way things are emerge from the very order of things and thus preserve our subjective sense of freedom.

Kant, according to Garsten, also had a suspicion of prudential wisdom, or phronesis, because it was messy and contextual. Citizens could participate in the polity, but only once they had become enlightened autonomous individuals disciplining themselves not to follow their common sense or ordinary opinions but the sovereign dictates of critical reason. (It is also true that this involved taking into account the opinions of other reasoners). The idea was that a group of enlightened individuals could develop together one authoritative perspective with which every reasonable person would agree. This last idea is manifested in contemporary liberal politics, when political discussion can revolve around a concept of what most ‘reasonable people’ believe. Kantian ideas are also taken up by Habermas in his search for a rational basis for pursuing political discussion, what he terms the theory of communicative action.

These ideas put me in mind of contemporary organizational life where there is a similar suspicion of politics and people’s judgement and various attempts to cover it over. The link I make with Hobbes for example, is connected to the modern discourse on leadership, particularly the idea of transformational charismatic leadership, which might be understood as an appeal that we sacrifice our judgment to the omnipotent sovereign leader. Similarly, I see vestiges of Rousseau’s thinking in Senge’s work and other humanist writers whose appeal is that we give up our bad (partial) selves and submit to the natural order of the organization: we are invited to ‘align’ with the organisation understood as a whole, because it is the nature of things which we should not oppose. Meanwhile, in facilitated meetings, or appraisals, or many manifestations of action learning theory, there is often an appeal to abstract Kantian reasoning: we agree in advance what the ‘rules’ of engagement are, that we will be constructive in our feedback, or that we will follow prescribed ways of engaging, asking only questions, not offering solutions, or only speaking when we are allowed by the facilitator to do so just in case politics or prejudice break out.

All of these examples could be understood as attempts to cover over every day politics and contestation and to create order.

All organisations have to struggle with questions of authority and control: and they must do so if they are to coordinate the activities of many employees to achieve what it is they are constituted to achieve. But for some reason we seem frightened by what might happen if we encourage people simply to speak to each other and learn to deliberate together, taking account of a variety of partial points of view. Because of a number of tendencies in contemporary organizational life, the financialisation of organisations, a dependence on abstract targets, the discourse on leadership, the idea that every meeting needs a concrete outcome, that talking might threaten to ‘open a can of worms’, we become alienated from what matters to us, from our experience, and from our ability to exercise judgement. According to Gadamer[5], we can lose the ability to recognize ourselves in our work because we are driven by abstract demands which govern us from outside our work context.

Exercising judgement, taking a position, according to Sandel, Garsten and Nussbaum, involves drawing on both emotion and reason, because it is based on our lived experience. In complex situations emotions are relevant to what is going on and may be good ‘data’ for indicating what matters to us. Additionally, emotions can shock us out of habitual ways of responding to what is going on, they are in Martha Nussbaum’s terms, ‘upheavals of thought’.[6] If we are to deliberate together about the complex and ambiguous situations in which we find ourselves, then this involves drawing on our practical judgment with all its partiality, messiness and contingency, rather than searching for or appealing to an abstract and often idealised position. It involves arguing and learning to persuade each other politically, drawing on a variety of types of reason and perspectives. The flux and change of social life is ceaseless, and resolving one set of difficulties often results in producing more. Valuing practical judgement and understanding what we are doing as a necessary political process which tries to bring as many partial truths as possible into view, including our own, may be one way of humanizing the workplace so that we might more fully recognize ourselves and each other in what we do.


[1] Mannheim, K. (1940/1972) Ideology and Utopia: an Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

[2] Sandel, A. (2014) The Place of Prejudice: a Case for Reasoning in the World, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[3] Garsten, B. (2009) Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[4] Rousseau, J. (1979) Emile, or on Education, New York: basic Books.

[5] Gadamer, H-G. (1993) Reason in the Age of Science, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

[6] Nussbaum, M. (2001) Upheavals of Thought: the Intelligence of Emotions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


2 thoughts on “Learning to talk to one another – politics and practical judgement

  1. Reblogged this on gecko1000 and commented:
    Working inside a large bureaucratic organisation where means and ends are largely dictated by political considerations outside the organisation’s ability to influence, I can see the corrosive effects of the race from judgement. Thinking is done by an elite few, disseminated to the many who provide the service. Our own experience and judgement not only count for nothing, but are positively discouraged through sanctions. The behaviour this engenders is that it is safer to follow the rules than to think for ourselves. A good example of what can happen is illustrated by the demise of the Liverpool End of Life Care Pathway. It was a framework which nurses and doctors followed without understanding the underlying judgements that created it in the first place. The Pathway became discredited. In our complex world we seem increasingly to defer to systematised experience and not to trust our own. Just look at the proliferation of people selling quick wins and how they do it: Ten steps to a fitter body; the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. We are encouraged to learn from others in order to overcome the limitations of our own cognitive abilities and the narrowness of our experience. We are social animals and have a natural tendency to calibrate our thinking in response to our social surroundings. Perhaps if we improved the quality of our thinking instead we might avoid the trap of alienation outlined in Chris’s blog.

  2. Management hierarchy is another reason why senior executives come to rely on financialised information. There is just too much data going across the bottleneck of the CEOs desk. Reducing the data to financial only makes the supervisory task possible. But also distances the executive from the shopfloor culture of the organisation, leading to alienation on both sides and reducing the effectiveness of management.
    It is interesting that managers yearn for MBWA management by walking about , ie engaging with the producers, while relying in practice on abstract analysis and reporting.
    My experience is of highly participative management , a joint venture between managers and workers, and I think it is much more effective at delivering what the customer wants and this translates into financial success even though it appears to be not the number one preoccupation and priority of management activity.

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