Book Review – Mats Alvesson

SRHE News Review: Mats Alvesson  The Triumph of Emptiness: Consumption, Higher Education and Work Organization, Oxford University Press 2013, £25.

Patrick Ainley  

Mats Alvesson is a Swedish Professor of Organization Studies who writes with sociological intent but in a line of cultural studies going back to Veblen and, above all, to Daniel Boorstin’s 1961 The Image, to diagnose the ills of overconsumption in a society in which ‘wealth… presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities”’. Their consumption no longer satisfies needs but signals advantage, their possession becoming ‘positional’. This leads to ‘zero-sum games’ in which there can be only one winner and consequently many ‘empty’ claims to ‘grandiosity’. 

‘The so-called knowledge society, the most popular and most grandiose label for contemporary post-industrial society’ is such a rebranding, masking its opposite – ‘functional stupidity’, defined as ‘a socially supported lack of reflexivity, substantive reasoning, and justification’. Characteristically of big business and of businessified education, such ‘illusion tricks’ typify ‘world class’ institutions following managers who imitate each other in their claims to ‘excellence’ but whose ‘leadership’ is itself another example of vacant grandiloquence: Warwick Business School proudly listing itself alongside Coca-Cola, FedEx and Pampers as ‘one of the strongest consumer and business brands in the country’! 

So, as education becomes ‘a sorting machine’ keeping everyone in their place, its claims to individual salvation/ ‘transforming lives’ and ‘increasing social mobility’ (always upward when the reality for most is down) become ever more evangelistic. Pedagogic promises pander to the ‘strange mixture of fantasy and craving’ characteristic of narcissism and insecurity, not only of individuals but groups whose professional projects are associated with inflated job titles and exaggerated career expectations in increasingly McDonaldized employment. Such ‘educational fundamentalism marginalizes those who are not adapted to the school system’, while ‘formal, certified knowledge, particularly associated with academic education… is more often an illusion trick than a real qualification’ since ‘a lot of education has very modest effects on learning’ when ‘never before have so many studied for so long and learnt so little’.

‘Promising higher education for half the population… and proclaiming that this is essential in a knowledge-intensive society, kindles fantasies and ambitions which, in most instances, are unlikely to be fulfilled’, at best warehousing students with a focus on consumer satisfaction ‘making students happy rather than teaching them’. The obvious remedy implies a Great Reversal to a minority academic HE of the sort Gove and Willetts are trying to impose. Unlike opposition claims to be able to educate our way out of recession, this could be made to work, though ignoring the majority who fail and are made to feel they are failures is a recipe for more riots. It also promises an end to emptiness, or at least to leave only academic emptiness in the form of regurgitative examinations which function as proxies for more or less expensively acquired cultural capital.

Alvesson briefly recalls ‘Keynes’s calculation that if we had devoted the productivity increases of the previous half-century or so to shorter working hours rather than consumption, a full working week would be only 15 hours’ but he does not deal with ‘the ecological disasters coming from economic growth and post-affluent consumption’ because ‘they are well known’. They will also surely soon extinguish the post-affluence in which the consumption of commodities has taken on the dimensions of a global cargo cult. In this context, Alvesson’s ‘critical examination of dominant institutions and broadly shared assumptions to point out how they constrain our ability and willingness to think through social issues and personal choices in order to arrive at conclusions grounded in reflective reasoning and sensitive ethical considerations’ may not seem much but is at least still possible in diminishing parts of higher education and is worth defending.

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