The Competent Public Sphere
Roberts, John Michael
Palgrave Macmillan Ltd, Basingstoke
The Competent Public Sphere is yet another attempt to provide a critical account of capitalism and its all-embracing mechanisms. The capitalist system, which despite the global recession has not become a real subject of discussion in any of the affected countries, is here analysed from the socialist standpoint. Roberts – a senior lecturer in Sociology and Communication at Brunel University (London), an active member of the Conference of Socialist Economists (CSE) and the author and co-editor of such books as Critical Realism and Marxism (2002), The Aesthetics of Free Speech (2003), Realism, Discourse and Deconstruction (2003), After Habermas: New Perspectives on the Public Sphere (2004) as well as many articles on the topic of Marxist social theory, voluntary activities and public sphere - has written a book which seems to fully encompass all areas of his expertise. It is thought-provoking, logically structured and extremely well-researched. The book itself is noticeable due to its vast and extensive bibliography (roughly 200 references), which may become a valuable research tool for people who do research on a similar subject. Yet, with its complex language coupled with its high density of information – it is easy to lose track of what it is that the author wanted to tell us and where other writers are quoted. All this makes the book less accessible to an average reader. To follow the author's argument it is also necessary for the reader to possess some reasonable level of theoretical background on the issues discussed and at least some basic knowledge of Marxism, which lies between the lines of each argument.
The book is divided into eight chapters of various length and theoretical degree. The first part - an introductory chapter – not only provides the reader with the meticulous definition of the terms: 'competence', 'public' and 'public sphere', but also draws an outline of major points which are touched upon in the following chapters. A similar aim can be ascribed to the second chapter which focuses on the term 'new economy' and the changes it has triggered in the realm of the contemporary workplace of which the blurring of spatial boundaries (globalisation), technology advances and risk escalation seem to be the most prominent. The next chapter is devoted to financialisation. Roberts refers to 'the financialisation of the global economy' and 'the financialisation of capitalism' to describe the dominance of financial capital (pp.29-30). He links the term to Marx's description of transition to a new form of production (pp.27-28).
Financialisation which, according to the author, has dominated the global economy since the 1970s and has helped quicken the speed at which economic transactions operate. This lengthy section on the so-called fetish of financialisation is jam-packed with economy and management theories, economical data and historical accounts, which are tied together by the Marxist notion of fetishism. Among the topics covered one will find: neoliberalism (and its links to financialisation), global capital, workers exploitation and corporate branding. The chapter's main message can be summed up in a sentence that the market-oriented way of thinking leads to a rise in job insecurity and a change in employment relations.
The next three chapters, which portray the complexity of relations and ideologies operating in the workplace, happen to be, I believe, a focal point of the book. Their strength lies in exposing the myths and ideologies which lie behind popular management theories such as project management, Knowledge Management (KM) or Total Quality Management (TQM). All of the above-mentioned theories centre around the notion of competence which, as presented by Roberts, is not only a recurrent buzzword to describe ideal personal traits of an employee (competent worker versus incompetent worker) but also a way to establish 'a set of fantasies which attempt to reorder the desires of labour' (p.70). By persuading workers of the need to become 'competent', that they have to be a part of a big corporate family and work in a team supervising each other, managers limit their employees' freedom. Building this form of participatory democracy, blending private and professional life in a workplace is therefore quite contradictory, a manner in which one's freedom of expression is restricted. The last argument raised by the author is the role of trade unions. Roberts claims that trade union have to fight with the current constraints on organising and recruiting members by exploring and empowering new sectors of society fighting with race and gender inequalities. This, backed by empirical data, seems to be a very powerful argument.
In the very last part of the book Roberts creates a vision of the alternative post-capitalist public sphere where activities of various bodies at different levels in society are well-coordinated. The idea of a society which is more attuned to human needs seems very promising. The same can be said about the recognition of the fact that people have different motivations for working in a particular organisation, not only how much money they will earn. The need for greater control over how one works seems as appealing. The question is: is the world ready to adapt to this way of thinking?
University of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski