Can Marxist theory contribute to cross-cultural management scholarship? Some initial thoughts and rationale

I’ve come to the conclusion that prevailing concepts of culture often used in cross-cultural management scholarship are rather bland. Let me explain.

Over the last few years, as a cross-cultural management specialist and one who has focused on sub-Saharan Africa, I have struggled with two or three main concepts or issues. The first is the nature of culture and cultural identity. The second is the nature of globalization and its interaction with the local. Connected with this is the concept of power and how in interaction, power is a major influence on how culture and cultural interactions themselves are formulated. I’ve pointed out that the concept of cultural crossvergences proposes a naïve idea of outcomes of cultural interactions and doesn’t account for the relative power of parties within cultural interactions. I have transposed this to what I have referred to as cultural interfaces. This takes account of global dynamics that have such a fundamental influence on the nature of knowledge, including indigenous knowledge. Hence, in addition, a major theme in my work and my teaching has involved the question ‘Where does knowledge come from?’

Where does knowledge come from?

In this I have referred to management theory as developing after the second world war in parallel with the emergence of the USA as a dominant economic world power, and that geopolitics is changing in that ancient civilisations are re-emerging. I’ve used the example of my recent studies of China in Africa. This has, in part, led me to again explore postcolonial theory, but to position it as a time- and context- restricted concept, where there is a need to rethink this theory in view of China’s engagement with Africa. I also explored Chibber’s assertion that following the demise of the left, and the unpopularity of Marxist theory in academia, postcolonial theory (PCT) took its place as a radical theory focusing on oppression, but leaving out class struggle, and being developed in academia rather than from any bottom-up popular movement. PCT hints at concepts like ‘ideology’ and what Engels called ‘false consciousness’, without really offending anyone’s’ political sensitivities.

Yet if we really are going to be able to bring critical thought to a consideration of cross-cultural management scholarship, we need to consider certain current issues that bring this imperative into stark relief. Over the last few months, UK and world events have certainly brought this home to me.

Values in cross-cultural theory: Whose values?

So much of cross-cultural management scholarship has been devoted to the study of values, and particularly to the cross-national comparison of societal values. Over recent months coverage in the British press on three political issues in particular (and maybe a fourth) has made me further question the nature and conceptualization of such cultural values; in particular the question, ‘Whose values?’.

British Prime Minister, David Cameron’s asserted that ‘British values’ should be taught in schools to counter the effects of extremism and terrorist grooming (Cameron, The Mail on Sunday, 15 June 2014). Juxtaposed to this was Cameron’s move to amend the law banning fox hunting in England. I remember outings from my rural primary school when we were taken to the village pub to watch the start of the hunt, where the huntsmen mounted on horseback in their fine red coats would drink alcohol from the ‘stirrup cup’ before they set out on their quest to chase after the foxes so the pack of hounds could rip them to pieces. Surely this is part of our ‘British values’? In particular Cameron pointed to the celebrations he has planned for the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, which he hails as the start of our democracy where ‘King John had to accept his subjects were citizens’. As Owen Jones has pointed out in a Guardian article, the Magna Carta (an English rather than a ‘British’ document) was a charter imposed by powerful barons rather than nascent democrats and offered nothing to average English subjects who were mostly serfs anyway. I noted in a previous post that Chibber pointed out that the working class were not given democracy: ‘The fact is that in the West, when a consensual, democratic, encompassing order did finally slowly emerge in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was not a gift bestowed by capitalists. It was in fact a product of very long, concerted struggles on the part of workers, farmers, and peasants.’. That is, any semblance of democracy was won by dissenting from prevailing ‘values’, something that the current UK PM is arguing against.

Owen Jones further points out in the article above that ‘Where the government’s agenda becomes dangerous is if one side claims its values are those of the nation as a whole’. This, he asserts, ‘is an age-old strategy of authoritarian regimes and movements, used to exclude, ostracize or suppress dissidents’. What this leads to in terms of theory is that there is a differentiation of values within societies depending on where one stands in relation to societal divisions and relationships as a whole, unless one (dominant) group can convince other groups otherwise, or that in PM Cameron’s words ‘we are all in it together’.

This leads me to another issue covered in the British and international press, that of the Greek financial crisis. You will remember that in 2007-8 following huge speculation by financiers in the North American sub-prime mortgage markets (selling to dodgy borrowers – the poor – at steep interests rates, slicing and bundling these debts and selling them on to pension funds, cities and investment firms) there was a fundamental economic crash throughout most of the world. This led to the collapse of some banking institutions and other corporations and the bailout and rescue (rather than nationalization) of a number of banks, and then the bail out of countries like Portugal and Ireland. In most of the western world this led to austerity measures (‘we are all in it together’), and by the way, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Fundamental to this has been the doctrine of neoliberalism (laissez-faire as my economic history teacher used to call it) led by the IMF and other global institutions including the European Central Bank. This doctrine promotes a number of values that, as in the case of the IMF-imposed structural adjustment programmes that have further impoverished scores of poor nations throughout the world, required countries to ‘immediately remove its barriers to trade and the flow of capital; liberalise its banking system; reduce government spending on everything except debt repayments; and privatise the assets which can be sold to foreign investors’ (Monbiot, The Guardian, 8 July 2015) reflecting free-market economics, consumerism and individualism. This impoverishment of whole populations may well have contributed to some of the extreme conditions leading to the migration of record numbers of refugees, another issue reported in the press in recent months, with some really bizarre cross-border and cross-cultural affects that must surely be the province of serious cross-cultural scholarship

To take up the theme of power dynamics within the international community it could be noted that there are 188 countries represented on the decision-making Board of Governors of the IMF. To illustrate the balance of power on this body, Malawi has 0.06 per cent of the votes, Greece has 0.47, and with the highest representation USA has 16.74 percent (Germany has 5.81 and Britain 4.29). So there is no doubt whose interests/elite values are best represented, and where the power lays when we start to think about global cultural interfaces and how these work.

In the deal offered to Greece ‘It has had to agree to more privitisation, to review collective bargaining and industrial action, and make market reforms, including Sunday trading’ (BBC, Greece debt crisis: Eurozone funding talks to start, 16 July 2015). This is not too dissimilar to the reforms being imposed on the UK by the Conservative government including more privatisation (including the Royal Mail which even Margaret Thatcher wouldn’t touch), curbing industrial action and relaxing Sunday trading laws so Sunday (traditional a day of rest for employees), can be regarded as any other working day and not attract overtime payments, while social security benefits are being reduced and capped. In Hofstede’s terms, hardly a formula for encouraging collectivism, ‘femininity’ values, lower power distance and genuine participation and democracy and tolerance of uncertainty. When these types of values are enforced, as they have been through IMF-led SAPs, on poor countries of the global South, the consequences may be even more devastating. Thinking historically of the colonial system in South Africa where people were forced off the land, and men required to work miles away from home in the mines, and the devastation to community and family life: the more recent effects of SAPs in African countries and in South America were similar. It is likely that there have been, and will be increasingly, similar effects in Greece.

The above may all sound like a political rant to many of my more ‘scientific’ minded colleagues in CCM, but it reflects the real world in which we construct our scientific theories. If we don’t take this context into consideration within our branch of the social sciences, we might just as well confine our studies to a hermetically sealed laboratory.

Cross-cultural scholarship and taking account of the real world

So, how do we take into account this real-world global context?

Firstly, any one-nation theory must be fundamentally flawed. Obviously Hofstede’s theory is a major target for this criticism. Critics have however mainly confined their opposition to Hofstede’s theory in this regard by pointing to regional and racial differences within countries (my own research on African countries, for example, took account of ethnolinguistic groupings within countries). Yet I’ve not seen much scholarly criticism of one-nation theory within our discipline based on class divisions. Perhaps some mentions of socio-economic distinctions, but certainly not on the level illustrated above by apparent fundament class differences on what constitutes British cultural values: hard fought-for democratic rights versus the right to hunt foxes, for example. In our scholarship these different histories and their implications need untangling and class theory within Marxist scholarship, including the nature of class struggle, may help us do that. Culturally it is unlikely that I have much in common with David Cameron and the Chipping Norton set or products of the Bullingdon Club. I would have more in common culturally with my colleague in Cameroon (not Cameron) with whom I have collaborated over the years, or with my PhD students from Pakistan or Nigeria. Even with my cultural tolerance, and perhaps ‘cultural intelligence’ I would find it difficult to relate to the former on an interpersonal level, and would regard them as quite foreign to my upbringing, education and values: most of the aspects that constitute culture. Yet I’m not specifically arguing to incorporate cross-cultural comparisons among socio-economic classes within our studies, merely to incorporate and contextualize this aspect, and its implications within our scholarship, as it has important implications.

Secondly, concepts of the sociology of knowledge have not had a wide uptake within our discipline. Why have so many people, in the UK for example, bought into this one-nation theory (‘we are all in it together’), by returning a Conservative government for a second term? Again. I’m not particularly making a political point, but an observation based on theories of class interest. Concepts of ideology and ‘false consciousness’ are certainly not confined to Marxist theory, but that is where we find their sharpest expression. To answer the question ‘Where does knowledge come from?’ as a cultural manifestation, and central to our theorizing within cross-cultural management scholarship, we need a theory of knowledge that incorporates power structures and recognizes that economically dominant groups, often with the means of mass communication, can shape the nature of knowledge. So much so that, ‘Ideology plays a key role in disseminating, legitimising and re- invigorating a regime of power, profit and privilege. Neoliberal ideas seem to have sedimented into the western imaginary and become embedded in popular ‘common sense’. They set the parameters – provide the ‘taken-for-granteds’ – of public discussion, media debate and popular calculation.’ (Chris Hedges, Karl Marx Was Right, May 31, 2015).

The summer in the UK has been a real eye-opener for me. More so, in September, around the overwhelming election to the leadership of the Labour Party of an anti-austerity advocate and so-called ‘left-winger’ who has been continuously vilified by the Press and some in his own party: that he did not sing the national anthem asking God to save our Queen, that he did not wear a red poppy to commemorate our war dead (all part of our national culture?). And, even more so around the rhetoric all summer of anti-immigration directed towards the people (human beings) desperately fleeing a war zone and seeking asylum in Europe including, heaven forbid, Britain, and being described as a ‘swarm’ by our PM Cameron, with his response being to fund more barbed wire at Calais and take in 4000 per year over the next five yearsdirectly from the camps in Lebanon (if there are any left alive).

Yes, there is a real case for cross-cultural management scholarship to incorporate this context, and to seriously consider the nature of knowledge in this area and the direction of our scholarship. You haven’t heard the last of this.

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