Ideology and the grammar of idealism: The Caterpillar controversy revisited
journal contributionposted on 25.02.2008, 11:20 by Peter Armstrong
Methodological idealism is attractive to the ideologue because of the freedom it offers to construct a preferred story-line. This means that the realist critique of such writings tends to coincide with a critique of ideology. Amplifying an earlier analysis by the author (Armstrong, 2004), this paper revisits a recent exchange along these lines within the literature of critical accounting. The occasion was Miller and O’Leary's (1994) proclamation that a ‘new economic citizenship’ had come into being with the spatial re-organization of manufacture at the now defunct Decatur plant of Caterpillar company. A first critique by Arnold (1998) demonstrated that this version of events could not be reconciled with the experiences of the workforce. A second, by Froud et al. (1998) pointed out that it was actually based on an uncritical recycling of management representations of their own actions; a more adequate understanding, both of the representations and of the actions needed to situate both in relation to the company's competitive situation. Though both critiques commented on the stylistic devices employed in Miller and O’Leary's narrative, neither of them, understandably, made any detailed analysis of their role in arguing Miller and O’Leary's most spectacular claim: that there was some kind of ‘linkage’ between the changes in the layout of Decatur's shopfloor and a new economic citizenship for the workforce. Because Miller and O’Leary's manner of ‘writing the social’ has now become a dominant force within the critical accounting project, it is important to examine the manner in which it achieves its truth-effects. On the evidence of the Caterpillar paper, at least three stylistic devices are heavily involved: • A persistent tendency to write in the passive voice fudges the issue of who thought and did what. A first consequence is that management images of the state of mind of the workforce are all-too-easily taken to be primary evidence of what these states of mind were. A second is that the narrative fails to distinguish interpretations made by the people at Decatur from the authors’ own. • The widespread use of key terms in scare quotes, creates uncertainties about whose definitions of them are at issue and what those definitions are. The result is a terminological slack which allows the authors to argue at will the linkages and connections (also undefined) on which their thesis depends. • A preference for writing about control systems in terms of the personal characteristics which they assume results in a narrative in which hypothetical beings (e.g. ‘the governable person’) are repeatedly invoked and gradually take on a quasi-corporeal existence in the process. Modes of ‘governmentality’ then appear to produce their intended effects simply in virtue of their existence. Taken together, the effect of these rhetorical devices is to allow the empirical world to speak in evidence, but only as scripted by the authors. In this manner, the warrant of empirical research is attached to a preferred vision of the social. The result is ideology.