What does it mean to talk about work as dehumanising? A critical realist perspective

My notes on Al-Amoudi, I. (2018). Management and dehumanisation in Late Modernity. In Realist Responses to Post-Human Society: Ex Machina (pp. 182-194). Routledge.

What does it mean to talk about work as dehumanising? In this insightful paper, Ismael Al-Amoudi identifies a number of senses in which management practices can be dehumanising:

  1. The “oppression or denial of human flourishing” such that “we cannot be fully human in organisations and societies that repress the development of specifically human powers” e.g. “our capacity for instrumental, moral and aesthetic reasoning”, “our capacity to feel and express refined emotions and our crucially important capacity to act out of love and solidarity” (pg 182).
  2. The “dehumanisation of subalterns” regarded as”lacking characteristic human traits and are thus denied basic human rights” (pg 182).
  3. Those “dehumanisation processes” which involve “the replacement of human activity by automated processes of production and organisation operating differently from human reflexivity and sense making”, as in “humans being increasingly replaced by ‘intelligent’ machines and governed by information systems” (pg 182).

He cautions that ‘dehumanisation’ is a polysemic term and thus these senses might overlap in practice. It is a term that can easily be used in imprecise ways which inject confusion in debates. Furthermore, it has often be used to justify what should not be justified and promises an easy sense of moral security. As he puts it, its “heavily value-laden” character is both “worthy and dangerous” (pg 183) but it’s one should persist with when the alternative is a technocratic outlook which gives no pause for what makes the human valuable. While the human is always open to contestation, affirming it provides a normative foundation upon which such contestation can take place. In this sense, it’s an important resource for critical social science.

These are not new considerations, even if they’ve often been framed in terms of other than dehumanisation. Weber’s account of bureaucracy in which “[h]uman persons were increasingly subject to forms of rational-legal authority” both “in terms of limiting the range of legitimate actions” and “restricting human interpretations, emotions and bonds” cast dehumanisation in the first and third sense as the telos of bureaucracy (pg 185). Virtues like “efficiency, calculability, predictability and control”, the “fundamental tenants of professional management and science”, found their origin in bureaucracy with all their dehumanising consequences. However what has changed, suggests Al-Amoudi, is the concern of management to obfuscate this process and mask its consequences.

He goes on to consider how declining employment security then the decline of the welfare state have contributed to a situation in which “it becomes impossible to formulate coherent life projects” where increasing numbers of young people “have so little certainty a few years ahead about their social and economic conditions that they are unable to start a family or even make meaningful friendships” (pg 187). Even those who have a job might feel it shouldn’t exist, as in David Graeber’s ‘bullshit jobs’ concepts, with all this implies about their capacity for fulfilment and happiness when work figures so prominently in their life. Voice and exit which might have been plausible responses in an earlier period are increasingly denied, with important consequences for the form which resist to dehumanisation might take. In some cases this results in violence which is widely deemed to be shocking, but this violence is a response to more insidious forms of violence which can be found within the labour process. He draws on Mbembe’s account of necrocapitalism and cites examples such as “workers in sweatshops, indigenous populations displaced and sometimes massacred for their lands, unjust wars beneficial to what President Eisenhower termed ‘the military-industrial complex” which indicate how violence at less exceptional and more generalised outside the global north.

Al-Amoudi argues that attention to dehumanisation serves two purposes. Firstly, it allows us to distinguish between forms of violence which are ethically problematic and those which are not i.e. “when those involved in violence see their human powers wither rather than flourish” or “when it negates human dignity” and “recasts victims as less human than perpetrators” (pg 188). He cites the example of a boxing match here but I’m not convinced about the general point, as I’m struggling to think of workplace cases where violence might be acceptable. Furthermore, one could easily make the case that the warlord flourishes in his exercise of violence, even though it remains reprehensible. Secondly, focusing on dehumanisation lets us “examine the social conditions of such violence and, when appropriate, to criticise them” (pg 188). He then moves onto a prospective mode to consider what ‘smart technologies’ might mean for dehumanisation, asking a number of important questions:

  1. Who will own the robots in the factories and the algorithms upon which our devices depend? What new forms of exclusion and subalternity will develop?
  2. What effect will increased workplace competition driven by smart technology have on our willingness to accept technological enhancement of human beings? What human powers might be extended and which might be lost?
  3. What inequalities will develop between humans and transhumans? What forms of organisation could help mitigate these inequalities?
  4. How will our interactions with robots change how we interact with other humans?
  5. What threshold will machines have to reach in exhibiting signs of humanity for us to be willing to respect their rights?

One crucial theme in the chapter is the relationship between management studies and management practice. He cautions that “the vast majority of management and organisational studies to date ignore the historically contingent cultural and social structures within which managerial groups operate” producing  “an historical vision of human organisations” and a “dangerous fantasy of humanity without without a history” (pg 190).

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