Michael Weatherburn

Writing the managerial revolution back in: the rise of big management in Britain, 1916-2015

When James Burnham published The Managerial Revolution in 1941, his argument that a tier of non-capitalist, apolitical managers had used the emergency of war to seize control in capitalist, communist and fascist regimes alike, made a deep impact, especially in Britain. Indeed, Burnham is credited by Tiratsoo and Tomlinson’s Industrial Efficiency and State Intervention (1993) with transforming the British Labour Party into adopting a centralised, ‘managerial socialism’ approach to governance. Additionally, these historians also credit Burnham with the Attlee government’s penchant for employing private sector management consultants on an unprecedented scale.

While the two generations following the war saw the marked, and sometimes violent, privatisation of nationalised industries, and the diminution of sections of the welfare state, the British state’s managerial capacity has not withered away. Nor has the state’s reliance on expensive management consultancies. Indeed, through centralised benchmarking and the ability to issue managerial contracts and qualifications, these issues have expanded.

We presently live in the most managed phase of civilian history ever, yet it is rarely commented upon except by insiders who realise the scale of the issue. For example, the former management consultant Matthew Stewart remarked in The Management Myth (2009) that scholars of many varieties should direct their efforts at ‘the worthy project of developing a critical intellectual apparatus to check the growing power of management in society.’

Through the lens of history, this paper proposes to do precisely that. Over the past century, big management, in the form of management consultancies, human resources, personnel and facilities management, organizational behaviour theorists, and industrial-organisational psychologists, has exponentially increased across private, public and charity institutions. Hundreds of thousands of specialists are now employed in Britain with the sole goal of managing the work of others. Synchronously, the power of trade unions and workers to meaningfully shape their workplace and the work being performed has been eroded. By definition undemocratic in the way it operates, big management dominates the waking lives of millions in Britain alone. It is time that changed.

About Michael Weatherburn
Michael Weatherburn has recently been awarded his PhD by Imperial College, in which he recovered and explored many facets of the twentieth-century British factory floor, such as the formalisation of industrial management and resistance to it. He has a BA in Modern History from Oxford University and a joint Imperial-UCL MSc in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. He was Byrne-Bussey Marconi Fellow at Oxford University from 2013-14 and presently teaches the global history of industry and the history of economic ideas at Imperial College.


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