My talk at the 12th AIPEN Workshop and how atomisation creates the shadow side of organisations
Last week I travelled to the University of Queensland to attend the 12th Australian International Political Economy Network Workshop.
It was the first time I have travelled in two years - due to my home city of Melbourne Australia having the world’s longest COVID-19 related lockdown.
I gave a talk on the Lab-Leak debate and the political economy of its media coverage. You can download my presentation slides here and hear an iPhone audio recording. I was tired and nervous but the talk went mostly OK. In the unrecorded Q&A, Professor Adam David Morton of The University of Sydney and I discussed the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s thesis of a ‘state of exception’ that related to the September 11 terrorist attacks and COVID-19 responses. I told the story of being a homeless undergraduate student who visited New York City shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
There were other talk highlights. The University of Wollongong’s Associate Professor Tim Di Muzio gave an hilarious and well received talk on the GameStop meme trading phenomena and the Robinhood platform’s rational herding of Millennial and Generation Z investors. In the Q&A, I shared a differing perspective based on my knowledge of brokerages and market-makers like Citadel Securities. Retail traders may talk about hot stocks and technical analysis patterns; whereas professional traders talk about catalysts, portfolio construction, market microstructure, and transaction costs. Spencer Jakab examines this latter view in his new book The Revolution That Wasn’t: How GameStop and Reddit Made Wall Street Even Richer (London: Penguin Books, 2022).
Meme trading’s appeal is that outsider ‘apes’ and ‘degenerates’ can form a swarm-like meritocracy to challenge and to overthrow Wall Street’s incumbents. I described this oppositional dynamic in my 2020 political science PhD as a counter-elite that directly confronts an economic, political, religious or social elite. This is not a new or a unique idea: it can be found in the work of Antonio Gramsci and Vilfredo Pareto. It has re-emerged since the 2008 Great Recession or Global Financial Crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic has also renewed it. As the broadcaster Justin Webb observes in an Unherd article about Great Britain’s social class structure: “Meritocracy has flourished thanks to atomisation. And it has come with costs that we are only now daring to start talking about.”
One of the turning points in my PhD research was when I read David Weil’s labour economy book The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014). Weil describe how in the United States new collateralised and financialised corporate structures like franchises and subcontracting were transforming labour - and leading to legally approved capital and value capture. Unions saw these disruptive innovations very differently: as ‘wage theft’. Timothy Noah sums up Weil’s book this week in a New Republic column:
The Fissured Workplace describes with admirable clarity capital’s disentanglement, over the past few decades, from labor. In the modern economy, capital no longer wants to make labor its slave, as Karl Marx would frame it. It wants to get rid of labor altogether. Since automation can’t yet achieve that to any satisfactory degree, the job of siphoning away workers falls to the aforementioned temp firms, franchisees, and other suppliers of contingent labor, few of which you’ve likely heard of. [emphasis added]
Weil’s insight about labour markets changed my PhD’s direction and has shifted my post PhD research more into political economy. My PhD’s case study on Aum Shinrikyo was no longer just about a cult or a covert biological and chemical weapons development program: it was also about how founder Shoko Asahara and his senior executive team (which I called a decision elite) channelled followers’ money, estates, and real estate holdings into their own funds. There was a now clearly visible causal logic to Aum Shinrikyo’s expropriation and rent-seeking.
At the time I read Weil’s book I was working in Victoria University’s central Research Office with several Faculties, Centres, and Institutes. I began to see more clearly from this more ‘Commanding Heights’ level how major competitive grants were developed; how Postdocs and collaborative research teams were hired; and how the shadow side of the organisation really worked. That’s mainly why Associate Professor Tim Di Muzio and I reached different conclusions about GameStop, Reddit, and Robinhood. You will hear facets of that shadow-aware perspective in my AIPEN talk above.
The shadow side of organisations thrive in atomisation conditions - which is why it is important as scholars to document it and to call it out.
Thanks for reading this Substack newsletter. Check out my professional academic website, Academia.edu public profile, and Twitter account for more. If you are able to subscribe then you will be supporting my independent research: thank you.