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The Wiki Man

Watch out comrade: big business is turning communist

1 September 2018

9:00 AM

1 September 2018

9:00 AM

Is it me, or is business becoming a teeny-weeny bit Stalinist? Common features include 1) Paranoia about political ideology; 2) Snitching; 3) Fatuous targets and metrics; 4) Unquestioning faith in technology; 5) Huge, economically unproductive bureaucracies; 6) Overinvestment in education; 7) Preference for theory over experience; 8) An obsession with rockets.

An acquaintance in the US has been denounced for racial insensitivity for asking whether a colleague was Jewish. (Funnily enough, I was asked this all the time when I visited New York in the 1990s. I had to explain that my curly hair originates in a country that’s the same size as Israel, and with slightly annoying neighbours, but it’s called Wales.)

Before you think ‘it is odd asking whether someone is Jewish’, let me provide the conversational context.

First party: ‘Can I leave a little early today, because it’s Passover?’

My acquaintance (who is Jewish herself): ‘Oh, are you Jewish?’

To anyone with the slightest grasp of idiom, this second question, except in a purely grammatical sense, isn’t a question at all. It is an oblique way of saying: ‘I didn’t know, but you have just told me.’ Like ‘Can I borrow your umbrella?’ ‘Oh, is it raining?’

But someone reported this exchange. To the complainant there was an iron-clad rule: you never ask about someone’s origins. To me, there is something Soviet about the idea that adherence to a rule is more important than common sense. Likewise, the act of denouncing her to the HR commissariat, like Pavlik Morozov.

Another Soviet feature is the preference for theory over observation. A CEO I know was berated by stock-market analysts for being too profitable — selling a product at a premium price which enjoyed a high market share. He was told this was not consistent with economic theory (by bankers with an iPhone in one pocket and the keys to an Audi in another).

Then there are the daft metrics. Khrushchev famously complained about the insane size of Soviet chandeliers; it turned out workers at lamp factories were awarded production bonuses measured in tons. The chandeliers they made continued to grow heavier until a spate of ceiling collapses.

Think capitalism can’t do something like this? Think again. Consulting firms are paid by the hour: as a result, hours of pointless information-gathering accompany even simple solutions. Diversity statistics, too, have a whiff of the five-year plan. Thousands of hiring decisions will be made in pursuit of diversity targets without changing social mobility at all. Because most measures do not measure ‘diversity’, but a white middle-class view of what diversity looks like.

In one prestigious organisation recently, a manager was recounting the impressive ethnicity figures for his department. His staff were half female, many of Indian origin. An Indian colleague smiled: ‘Um, you do realise that almost everyone is from the Brahmin caste, do you?’ To English eyes, the department was a model of meritocracy — to an Indian it looked like the crowd at an Eton-Harrow match.

But perhaps this should not surprise us. The Soviets always believed that better data and computational power could make a control economy work. What we never considered was the reverse: that businesses furnished with better information technology would increasingly take on the qualities of a control economy, with decision-making becoming centralised in a technocratic class obsessed with abstraction and theory.

What this techno-bureaucracy means is that a high-trust economy like the UK’s ends up adopting all the paranoid checks that make low-trust economies inefficient. But if you say ‘maybe more tech isn’t the answer’, you will be denounced as a Luddite and put on a train heading east.

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