THE RHETORIC OF DIVERSITY SALESMANSHIP
Bruce C Wearne*
[A Review Essay of Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis Productive Diversity: A New Australian Model for Work and Management Annandale NSW Pluto Press 1997 ISBN 1 86403 034 8]
Post-modern rhetoric is alive and well in industrial relations in Australia. It has found its focus in diversity management a fast-growing and well-established approach to management theory for businesses and organisations of all sizes. It may have started in the United States, the land where most managerial fashions originate, but Cope and Kalantzis continue the "post-modern push" embracing it for Australias industrial future.
Apparently workers no longer need to be treated en masse. The post-industrial era has arrived but Cope and Kalantzis give an apology for diversity management which is a strange mixture of romanticism and pessimism. They state : ... even if the system is endemically inequitable, it is possible to strip it of some of its blind prejudices. The system does not have to be racist. it does not have to be sexist. it does not have to be discriminatory. The boss may still drive off in a black Porsche while the workers still catch the bus.
But it does not have to be a white person who is driving the Porsche. In the absence of realistic alternatives, this is better than nothing. (Kalantzis and Cope 1997 p.282)
This statement re-jigs new age socialist tour de force. What do we make of it? Does it imply that a black Porsche-driving boss, by definition, is less racist that a similarly mobile white boss? Is a female driver less sexist than a male behind the Porsche wheel? Productive Diversity ... rests on the idea that our organisational and our social futures will only be productive if they are equitable ... [It] may seem to be wishful thinking. it is precisely this. it is an act of strategic optimism (Kalantzis and Cope p.282)
And so sin is assumed to reside in the injustice of inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities. The path to salvation is not the conventional one of redistribution of resources by the State; instead their approach focuses upon a new perspective becoming accepted throughout the society. They view difference and diversity as the key. A re-distribution of work-place opportunity is needed so that differences of gender (sexuality), ethnicity and age can come into their own.
So what does diversity management mean in concrete terms? Cope and Kalantzis take for granted the emergence of a multi-cultural ethos at the shop-floor level. It has to be said that there are many good aspects of a social policy which encourages the fullest possible participation of people of all ethnic backgrounds. Such a policy may even have a positive flow-on in industrial life, in technical training and in social welfare
Since the mid-1980s, and through to 1996, Australian industry embraced this multi-culturalism, led by the policies of the Federal Labor Government. Some critics, however, view diversity management as simply the shop front of an approach to industry which trades in wholesale madness. They view Cope and Kalantzis as the purveyors of an esoteric religion, and such criticism needs to be addressed by those who would defend diversity management.
Diversity management responds to a shop floor situation in which workers cannot do the work that is required of them. Maybe this is due to limited language skills or little knowledge of the social, cultural and legal background of the country in which they now reside. Such workers are in constant danger of being laid off because they cannot handle the important technical and lingual aspects of their work. Alternatives have had to be found. Some have looked to their unions to find a solution. The unions, unable to find a solution on their own, adopted the new approach. With the encouragement of the Federal Labor Government, employers and employer organisations devised new schemes to train the workforce. A redistribution of work-place priorities coincided with Labors industrial policy - a market-oriented socialism.
This new strategy was embraced in the mid 1980s and in 1995 the Labor Governments Taskforce on Leadership and Management Skills made its report. One overwhelming fact stood out - one in five in the Australian population (ie 3.6 million of 18 million) is overseas born. One over-riding policy was the result; industry and industry policy must take account of the ethnic diversity in the workforce. So, by the time Labor lost Government in March 1996, this up-dated management fashion had worked its way into Government policy, and employers, community groups and unions were all busily advocating the benefits of industrial multi-culturalism.
The result has been that diversity management has become a kind of industrial wing of a cross-party movement. It is another side of what Australians call economic rationalism, the free market ideology which dominates both major parties, left and right. It calls to mind the traditional division between the industrial and political wing of the labour movement. The difference is that this is an industrial-managerial ideology which is accepted by large sectors of both major political parties.
The subtle change moves the managerial focus away from a workers performance and emphasises the workers potential. Cope and Kalantzis refer to this as an approach which "doles out even a little bit of responsibility and power" (Kalantzis and Cope p.282).. A worker is acknowledged to be his/her own manager; one has to face up to ones own diverse array of personal skills. The worker is no longer viewed as performing a task, and achieving a level of competence to do the work; rather the worker manages, operates and negotiates the work itself. The view that the worker is primarily economically motived (homo economicus) has been replaced by the view that the worker finds ultimate meaning as a negotiator (homo conciliator).
Government supported programmes encourage employers to foment this attitude in employees. When in Government from 1983 to 1996 Labor devised a vast array of labour-market programmes and under the Working Nation initiative (Paul Keating 1994), aimed to help employers take on recent migrants who, left to themselves, could not easily cope with new industrial and technological demands. Large-scale community-based English-language programmes were provided for new arrivals. Gaining a place in such a course meant a job search allowance and a case manager whose task was to liaise with possible employers, helping the migrant find a job but also helping to fit the newcomer into the work-force.
Working Nation also focused upon helping young mothers by attempting to make child-care a universal right for all mothers. In this way they too could negotiate their own future, as workers in the work-force. It also introduced a special Abstudy scheme for aboriginal school children. This is simply to say that these policies, wrapped together, meant a political package which had some highly commendable aspects. But the underlying rationale also requires some close scrutiny. Since Labor lost office in March 1996 the policies of Working Nation have lost impetus. The Labor Partys version of the free-market is replaced by an even more right-wing version of laissez faire and it seems as if other social trends are unleashed : some reject any idea that special labour market programmes should be directed at aboriginal youth, claiming with increasing support that this constitutes reverse racism. An anti-historical view has taken hold and is very strong : "If aboriginal people want to be a part of mainstream Australian society then they can take their place in the general queue like the rest of us."
So when the Conservative Coalition came to power in March 1996 there was an intensification in the change to the industrial climate. Labor had clung to its market socialism with its view of the worker negotiating his/her own future assuming that other workers would always be a part of the process. The underlying anthropological assumption of the new Government leads them to embrace homo conciliator (man the negotiator) just as much, but does so in a radically individualised way. In some ways diversity management is on the back foot. Or as Cope and Kalantzis imply, with the change of Government, it has become the basis for a new-style post-modern opposition which no longer places itself on the side of the working class and the industrial movement but on the side of minorities, on the side of difference and diversity. Mainstream uniformity has become the new hegemonic power to be resisted. This is Cope and Kalantzis view of their own progressivism. This is why global market is embraced as the primary source for renewal and a just society. Ethnicity, gender (or sexuality) and age, are the positive historical resources which if utilised can make work-places more effective, more efficient and more productive. The age of mass society has passed, and the shop-floor can now be a site for the demonstration and celebration of our individualities in the global market. The global market welcomes diversity. To resist is futile. Cope and Kalantzis embrace the globe as their "act of strategic optimism (Kalantzis and Cope p.282)."
Recent research seems to indicates that Australian employers are not all that sanguine about these attempts to reform the moral fabric of the work-place. After all some apologists for multi-cultural diversity management accuse employers and managers of inherent "conservatism", stuck in its own majority ethnic groove. Employers who resist the rhetoric claim that diversity management is merely work-place ideology, a salespitch developed by self-interested sales persons, self-styled ethnocrats and sexual politics officiandos. These employers may see value in an approach which respects the workers background, enhances the workplace, and increases productivity. But facilitating entry to, and advancement in, the work-place, for persons who have limited English skills and only an elementary understanding of the laws and customs of the country is something else. Employer resistance to taking on unskilled diversity when it means illiterate un-skilled workers is branded as "conservative" by the ethno-cratic elite and some go as far as to say that the employers line of argument proves that there is ingrained racism in Australian society.
There may be engrained racism in Australian society. But in this case employer resistance does not prove it. What it proves is that employers, like anyone else, resist moralistic black-mail.
Now, supposedly, the recognition of difference will move work-place practise and culture onto a higher level. The managerial revolution, along with reforms insisted upon by democratic society, and new styles fomented by wide-scale consumerism, have developed into a new paradigm for work. We can now supposedly celebrate the various ways in which we present ourselves and our various selves with all the lurks and quirks of our choosing. No longer do we need to spend our time trying to live according to some majoritys fashion.
Diversity management leaves Henry Fords assembly line and F W Taylors time-and-motion studies well and truly in the past. But how did this managerial fashion come to take centre stage? "Multi-skilling" is central to this new approach. Diversity management was also a means by which left-oriented academics and unions could tell employers what was best for their shopfloor practises. No doubt also management and legal consultants, found the emergent legal and industrial situation very tempting. Justice was seen to be a matter of complex training and a heightened sophistication all provided by employers at the Governments and unions behest.
The argument of Harry Braverman (1974) was one important theoretical contribution. His analysis had promoted a search among left-wing social scientists and industrial relations researchers for a new way of working. This new way would have to overcome work-shop and managerial practises which degrade work and within which human potential is stifled.
So-called Fordist principles had brought about systematic de-skilling in the interests of capital. Paying workers higher and higher salaries, to perform more narrow and specialist functions, was simply one way of trading off the fact that with the development of new technology these highly-paid workers would be laid off much earlier in their working lives. To transcend this Fordist approach, and develop a relevant alternative to the behaviourism of F W Taylor, the entire socialist world-view had to be re-jigged. it was no longer the barricades in the streets where mass worker protest would lead to a fundamental social structural change after an revolutionary overthrow of a capitalist Government on behalf of the workers. It was the work-place itself which was to become the strategic location where the revolutionary action was to take place. it was on the shop-floor. In Marxist terms the work-place would be where workers overcame their alienation and found their humanity again in their work.
In "A Final Note on Skill", Braverman did not spell out exactly how this desired state of affairs would be brought about, but it would have something to do with a new approach to the skill of the worker.
Subsequent reflection upon Bravermans impetus developed the view that a solution had to be found in recognising a workers "skills" because it is in the identification of the worker with one abstract task that lies at the heart of alienating work practises. "Multi-skilling" was seen as the solution. It was widely anticipated that "multi-skilling" strategies would boost employee and organisation performance leading to a rise in profits and wages, and an overall improvement in working conditions. Hadnt Volvo and Saab built the worlds best cars by implementing a team approach to car-building which was implicitly an endorsement of "multi-skilling"?
It is at this point that the purveyors of "diversity" and "difference" came to play their hand. Whether they focused upon the differences of ethnicity, gender or age these new-style management ideologues have subsequently played an important role. The traditional socialist agenda of concern for the working class has been transformed or subverted - depending upon how you look at it. Instead progressive social reform is assumed to lie down the path of the recognition of "minorities", moving public life and practise away from the "oppressions" of hegemonic ethnic and gendered majorities. This managerial fashion is part of the general drift in civil society in which the traditional fabric of trust is no longer respected. Moreover the public-legal safeguards which had stood alongside democratic rule are being eroded.
The new resistance to multi-culturalism in Australia is complex. It comes to a special focus in the work-place even if it is not limited to matters concerned with employment. Industrial life in this country has been subjected to rapid and fundamental changes over the past decade. Residents of this land from the third and fourth generation often find themselves perplexed when it comes to explaining the rules of the industrial game. How does one function effectively in the work-force once one has a job? This question hits all workers, whatever their ethnic background, whatever their similarities and differences with majorities and minorities.
Cope and Kalantzis are disillusioned believers. Their romanticism looks to cultural diversity as an economic and industrial fix. Once they believed that the day was not too far off when Australia industry, fired by its multi-cultural enlightenment, would become known for its "world best practise". But now they opt for an economics of cultural diversity which seems no longer interested in reform and simply adopts the consultants professional rhetoric. My worry is that this is part of a general degeneration in economic thinking about the structure of public debate and civil society in which the market becomes the basis for a new form of national socialism in industry.
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Harry Braverman 1974 Labor and Monopoly Capital - the Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century London and New York; Monthly Review Press 1974)
Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis 1997 Productive Diversity: A New Australian Model for Work and Management Annandale NSW Pluto Press 1997
Paul Keating 1994 Working Nation A National policy paper presented by the Prime Minister, 4th May 1994. Canberra : Australian Government Publishing Service, 1994.
Bruce C Wearne, Anthropology and Sociology, Monash University
* Bruce C Wearne is a Senior Lecturer who specialises in the history of social theory. Correspondence about this article can be sent to him c/- Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Monash University, Clayton Vic 3168. Special thanks for advice about the argument of this article to Dr Ernest Healy of the Centre for Urban and Population Research, Monash University.
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