Reflections on the Human Capital Hoax (Episode 36)

A Guest Post by Benoit Gautier

Thanks to Talking About Organizations Podcast, I have been Reading P. Fleming's 'The Human Capital Hoax' (Episode 36). The basic claim of the paper is that human capital theory has opened the gates for the 'uberization' of the workforce. My main problem with it is that the author reasons from a few striking examples rather than from statistics or even patient ethnography.

It makes me think of Günther Ander’s works on automation, where he examines extreme man-machine interactions and tells us that in theory, man is not worth anything anymore. The (quite mainstream) narrative is that in the Fordist golden age, everyone worked in a large automobile plant with social security benefits, a large HR service, managers and unions, you know, the normal situation. The problem is that this image of normality is a pure artefact - it was made up by a fraction of the managerial elite in the middle of the 20th century. But the majority of workers still were employed in very small, barely automated workplaces.

Nowadays, we have a reverse image : the whole working class is to be seen as a congregation of über drivers, or something akin to it. There flow discourses that we sociologists know well: the fear of social atomization, anomy, the fall of institutions, the tearing of the social fabric, and so on. Durkheim was worried about exactly the same thing during the industrial revolution, when he lamented the crumbling of the Ancien Régime’s productive order. Just after that, he wrote a famous book on suicide, which might sound familiar to those who deal with burn outs and other psycho-social woes and tribulations of today’s workforce.

My fear is that the change from Fordism to uberism is nothing but a change in managerial ideology, rather than a change in actual productive organization. I’m always baffled by how hard it is for social sciences/management researchers to distinguish between the two. A very famous French sociology book about 'The New Spirit of Capitalism', claims we entered a new era of capitalist ideology, based on a very scrupulous analysis of a large corpus of management literature. It is very well, but a change of ideology doesn’t mean anything if you don’t look at the way the lingua franca of consultants and management academics translate to actual management policies. We never really had the same work done for management tools and practices. So we have to keep talking about ideas.

Managerial ideology is created by a small elite that sets the terms of the debate on what organizations should look like. But most managers don't really care about this ideology. Often, they could not comply to the last 'management fad' even if they wanted to. In the 70's - 90's Toyotism was omnipresent in discussions. Just like 'uberization' today. Saying workers should be married to their employer one day and saying they should hookup with whatever company they feel like the other is certainly a shift in the dominant discourses. But a lot of employers still need to attract and retain workers, and to try to stabilize the workforce because their business model needs it. They don't care if they look like outdated industrialists, because they do not write in fancy journals or perform life changing Ted talks.

At the end of the day, these changes in dominant discourses are used to forge a distorted image of the workforce. They make you believe that everyone is a uber driver. And that dominant representation is normative. That means that discourses can have an effect on reality, by the intermediation of public policies and law. Politicians rarely have access to the world of the workplace. So when members of the managerial elite describe the workforce according to the Fordist or the uberist model, they have no choice but to believe them. Unless they listened to academics who still go in organizations, or union leaders, but, who’s kidding who? The problem is both academic and political. We cannot take for granted representations of work forged by the managerial elite, according to its needs. That is why we need empirical inquiries on the realities of work.


Benoit Gautier - Université Paris Nanterre