As it happens, the world as a whole and every place in it have transformed into Schrödinger’s cat.
As it happens, the world as a whole and every place in it have transformed into Schrödinger’s cat. In the famous thought experiment of 1935, illustrating quantum uncertainty, a cat is locked up in a box together with a container of poison, one unstable atom and a radiation detector which will release the poison when triggered. Regardless of the passage of time, we cannot know if the cat is dead or alive – both states are equally possible until the moment the measurement is taken. The state will only become real when observed. Up to the moment the box is opened, the cat is simultaneously dead and alive. At present, the same can be said for all social systems, small, medium and large. The state of absolute suspension which we are experiencing so intensely did not come from nowhere. It has existed for quite a while, though the box was closing ever so slowly, gradually, in fact imperceptibly for a great many of us; the younger ones amongst us do not even know another world. As one of our students once put it, in young people’s world, changes have always been for the worse. As soon as they got used to something that was quite uncool, that thing would become even worse, making you long for the previous ‘uncoolness’. Echoing Antonio Gramsci, Zygmunt Bauman called this state of affairs an interregnum: a suspension period of, as yet, unknown duration, a time of uncertainty between two stable states: the old social system, which has already exhausted its potential, and a new one, still unknown and not adequately defined, which will one day replace it. In his Letters from Prison, Gramsci wrote: ‘The old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’ .
Retrotopia is, as a rule, the opposite of inspiration and learning; it is the state of the dormant mind of the benighted cat locked in the box, neither mobilising for action nor presenting a sober review of her life. The cat is both alive and dead, and, at the same time, neither alive nor dead.
These symptoms are, above all, what the student talked about: the inevitable, somewhat nostalgic backward gaze, even if involuntary. Sometimes this manifests itself as a certain fixation of the gaze, even bedazzlement, and then there are attempts to restore the imaginary, untrue, and above all, impossible past, a style of politics and management that Bauman called retrotopia. Leaders, managers, and politicians act as if they wanted to turn back time, which is, in itself, an absurd strategy. The past they refer to is a sentimental, nostalgic image that has more to do with the world of fairy tales than real history: dreams of tribal communities based on blood and honour, of the deserved superhumanity of some that legitimises social inequality; narcissistic fantasies about their own perfection, supposed to bring us happiness. This is not a mere fascination with the past, or a search for inspiration from the difficult lessons of history. Retrotopia is, as a rule, the opposite of inspiration and learning; it is the state of the dormant mind of the benighted cat locked in the box, neither mobilising for action nor presenting a sober review of her life. The cat is both alive and dead, and, at the same time, neither alive nor dead. It is hardly surprising that the best she can do in this liminal state is dream up lunatic visions: the kind of narratives prevailing in ‘mainstream management’ since several decades ago. Polish mainstream media, as well as managerial education, keep telling us tall tales of management, voiced with unanimity and conviction unheard of in any other area of life or social thought. These are met without criticism, reflection, without even the healthy scepticism typically found in the media when it comes to other topics and areas of social life. It has simply been assumed that management is about satisfying the narrowly understood interests of shareholders, i.e., profit maximization, financial optimization of organizations, treating ‘human resources’ on a par with buildings, cash reserves, and products stored in warehouses. Managerialism for all occasions. If something sounds different, it is by definition dismissed as ‘not management’. We know this from experience, as we are both management professors, and one of us has solely dealt with management studies since her first years of college. It would be right to suspect that if something is so monolithic and obvious, if it is approached without critical reflection, without a possibility of expressing opposition or doubt, and without ethical evaluation of the consequences, it is not science but fanatical faith. But a faith without a possibility of salvation, redemption, or enlightenment is not a religion, it is simply an ideology. It is hardly a comprehensive understanding of reality. British cultural theorist Mark Fisher referred to this narrowing of perspectives as ‘capitalist realism’, an illusion suggesting there is only one way to organize an economy, business management, and social relations.
Education is what contributes to maintaining this illusion, from the so-called entrepreneurial classes for schoolchildren to study curricula offered by business schools and management departments. Almost all Polish and foreign schools of management are creating and disseminating a simplistic, falsified, unsound and highly retrotopian image of the world.
Education is what contributes to maintaining this illusion, from the so-called entrepreneurial classes for schoolchildren to study curricula offered by business schools and management departments. Almost all Polish and foreign schools of management are creating and disseminating a simplistic, falsified, unsound and highly retrotopian image of the world. It is a world in which the Balcerowicz Plan was, and indeed still is, both necessary and constructive. It is a world in which the pillaging of the common good during the transformation is regarded as hard work, for which the pillagers deserve not only wealth, but also our utmost respect. Finally, it is a world of no alternative to a system profuse with words such as ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’, yet incompatible with human life, or indeed that of animals and plants. On the other hand, it proves perfectly compatible with the coronavirus, which, just like poor Schrödinger’s cat, is neither dead nor alive. The delusions of the golden calf of free enterprise are the delirium of a convict caught in a limbo between life and death.
The pandemic engulfing the world has, however, clearly demonstrated how fragile and vulnerable the global economy is when based on the worship of efficiency, growth and profit ownership (not necessarily in that order), how quickly the supply chains of essential products (including food) can be disrupted, how difficult it can be to produce and deliver sufficient quantities of technologically unsophisticated products such as masks and protective clothing, hygiene products or simple medical equipment when there is a sudden increase in demand or when the intricate last-minute supply system is disrupted. It has turned out that ‘unproductive’ strategic reserves help organizations to absorb economic shocks, and local supplier contacts enable them to survive. Another thing that has become evident is that one can respond to the crisis either with massive lay-offs and increased exploitation of employees, or by making an organization’s resources available to help address the pandemic.
At this point, let us return to Schrödinger’s image of numerous coexisting possibilities. We do not and cannot know how management will be transformed after the pandemic is overcome. We are convinced that this period of pausing, of limiting contacts, and of damaging, at the very least, many branches of the economy will not pass without consequences. In our opinion, nor will the demonstration of how interdependent we all are, how much our lives and comfort depend on some of the worst paid employees. However, these consequences can take various forms, both sinister and liberating.
In the short run, there may be an attempt to return to the forms of management and economic models that have enjoyed (dubious) triumphs around the world over the last few decades: the financialization of management, the authoritarian control of employees, the socialization of costs while privatising profits. This seemingly simple solution petrifies the existing distribution of wealth and power, so there will be many voices demanding precisely this kind of ‘return to normalcy’. But this system is incapable of dealing with our uncertain environment, with problems stemming from the despoliation of nature and voices calling for solidarity and co-operation, with the worldwide human and planetary interdependence that the epidemic has highlighted. If we choose this path, as a global society and as the European Union, we can expect not just one painful recession, but a whole series of increasingly severe crises, the ongoing destabilization of the global economy, and an overwhelming sense of impotence against the climate catastrophe.
We are facing a unique opportunity to abandon the collective delirium of society conceived as the sum of individual pursuits of profit. We can replace this with other dreams, underpinned by science and also proven in practice.
Fortunately, this is not the only way. We are facing a unique opportunity to abandon the collective delirium of society conceived as the sum of individual pursuits of profit. We can replace this with other dreams, underpinned by science and also proven in practice. For this, we will need the concept of the common good, rarely present in current public debate and especially in reflections on management.
In a delirious Schrödinger’s cat world, the common good is mostly familiar through a 1968 article by biologist Garrett Hardin, which portrays it as a pathetic, even tragic phenomenon, a mediocre form of ownership, fortunately displaced by the much more effective private property. In general, this claim is never even discussed, as if it were the truth revealed. Yet Hardin’s thesis has been repeatedly called into question and falsified.
The example of communal pastures Hardin used features a peculiar story of the common good dismantled and destroyed by the triumphant advance of dynamic capitalism. It portrays an economy of pillage and irresponsible exploitation of the earth to the community’s detriment. Rather than describing what he called the tragedy of the commons, Hardin in fact recounted the tragic beginnings of capitalism. What is more, this approach completely disregards the question of governance, central from the viewpoint of sustainability and effectiveness. The commons, such as the communal pastures, were historically managed and regulated by communities. Management of the commons is premised on principles unlike those of private profit maximization. One risk it prevents is the irresponsible individual use of the commons: precisely what lies at the heart of capitalist management. As emphasised by Nobel Prize winner in economics Elinor Ostrom, communities establish their own rules of managing common resources, including traditions, structures, and cultural norms, thus maintaining a balanced relationship with their environment, which does not always equal maximal efficiency. This is not the same as the state’s top-down control, and its much more democratic nature is not the only difference. The structures resemble mixtures of the ‘private’ and the ‘public’, since they act fast, without the constraining effect of plans and procedures, but also without maximising investor profits or being driven by financial indicators. A frequent mistake commentators make, associating this sort of governance with ‘communism’ (probably meaning state communism, rather than, for example, the Paris Commune), lies in equating the common with the public (state-owned). This is not the case. The commons are owned by a particular community, not by impersonal institutions. Nor does the notion of common good require ideologies, be they market-oriented or statist. What it does require is fundamental shared values and principles.
Organizations of the common good exist and prosper even under the very unwelcoming conditions of neoliberal capitalism. They function in various areas of social life, from the economic sphere, through local communities, to larger urbanised regions (Polish scholars describing this variety include economist Zofia Łapniewska and urban planner Krzysztof Nawratek). Our own research, by no means unique in its focus on alternative organizations , shows that organizations of the common good are more resilient in unstable environments, but also that they provide opportunities for meaningful, unalienated work. They are characterized by horizontal, rhizomatic dynamics, combining horizontal, dynamic growth and an intensive relationship to the environment, meaning suppliers, customers and the like. They do not necessarily rely on the principle of competition (which, in a modern market replete with monopolistic practices, very often constitutes a commandment still preached, but honoured only in the breach), but often on reciprocity. Management of such organizations has its roots in the co-operative movement (and they often take a form resembling democratic co-operatives), based on the participatory negotiation of values and goals, and the principle of pursuing the common good.
Up until now, a serious obstacle to the development of organizations of the common good was their invisibility in a world focused on the financial success of listed companies. Absent from management course syllabi and the media, they do not set a recognisable standard for other organizations, students or legislators. The structure of an individual profit-oriented company is assumed of any new organization, and the law presupposes this is the form most economic entities will take. Students who might wish to learn how to found and manage a cooperative are condemned to searching for solutions on their own.
Therefore, organizations which might help us to reinvigorate management and the economy will not develop spontaneously. They need an extensive support system, ranging from regulations that regard the values of the commons as just as deserving of protection as owners and shareholders’ individual profit, to access to resources currently dedicated to fostering businesses. Moreover, they need to be embedded in an environment, a specific place and time, to coexist with the territory, as French sociologist Bruno Latour wrote in Down to Earth: ‘Belonging to a territory is the phenomenon most in need of rethinking and careful redescription; learning new ways to inhabit the Earth is our biggest challenge. Bringing us down to earth is the task of politics today’ .
So that, when the kitty is released from her quarantine and is proved to be alive (of this we cannot yet be sure), she will have the will and the energy to jump out joyfully and start to build a more pleasant, less alienated and more resilient world.
We suggest this kind of management should be promoted all around, tirelessly, by whoever has access to the media. So that, when the kitty is released from her quarantine and is proved to be alive (of this we cannot yet be sure), she will have the will and the energy to jump out joyfully and start to build a more pleasant, less alienated and more resilient world. Shared institutions are both more solid and more sustainable, since they rely directly on other institutions, working through culture and trust. Our actions cannot guarantee the cat’s survival, but we can offer her something that will make her feel like living if she happens to leave the box alive.
Meanwhile, the box is locked tight and the cat is both dead and alive, and also neither dead nor alive. And yet, as we are reminded by Massimo De Angelis and David Harvie, ‘the spectre of commonism may already be haunting the planet’ .
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 Gramsci, A. (2005), Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence & Wishart, p. 276.
 Bruno Latour (2018) Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Oxford: Polity.
 Massimo De Angelis, David Harvie, The Commons [w:] The Routledge Companion to Alternative Organizations, red. Martin Parker, George Cheney, Valerie Fournier, Chris Land, Routledge, Abington 2014, s. 292.