The Remembrance of Things Past in Organization Theory

Review of Memory as a Moral Decision, by Steven P. Feldman
Business Ethics Quarterly,  14 (4) 2004: 787-91

Howard S. Schwartz, Oakland University


Conservatism has developed a rather bad reputation in recent years. For example, a recent, lavishly funded study reported several meta-analyses of work on the causes of conservatism (Jost, et al., 2003) It found that the research shows that conservatives are, among other things, afraid, aggressive, resistant to change, intolerant of ambiguity, tolerant of inequality, and integratively simple. 


Now, it came to these conclusions in some rather dubious ways, largely revolving around including in their “meta-analysis” those published items that fit their hypothesis and massively excluding those items that did not[i]. But I do not wish at this point to criticize their methodology. I want instead to point to their foreordained conclusion, which was that conservatism is “motivated cognition,” which means that conservative ideas are an expression of moral and psychological pathology, and not to be taken seriously in their own terms.


I cannot comment on Steven Feldman’s pathology, but I can say that his ideas are conservative and should be taken seriously indeed.


Feldman is conservative in the most unadulterated sense: he believes there is value in the past and in following the traditions that represent it within the present. These traditions contain within themselves the wisdom that previous generations gained through experience. They bring with them the reasons why we are who we are and in this way tie us into the historical and moral community of which we are a part. To deny the value of tradition is to deny everything that goes into our identity.


Much of what we know, we know in a way that we cannot say. It is “tacit knowledge.” Much of tacit knowledge is structured by repression, in which we deny certain possibilities to ourselves by not allowing ourselves to consider them. This may seem limiting, and it is, but it is always the case that to choose something is to reject something else. Specifically, choosing the good is also a matter of rejecting the bad.  Thus, repression is a necessary component of morality.


But social life is not exhausted by the obligations that our identity brings with it. Rather, culture contains both demands and the means for releasing ourselves from these demands.  All culture requires in this regard is a hierarchy between these two, in which the society’s moral demands have preference, are regarded as more important, than the release from those demands. It is this hierarchy that has broken down in our times. Release has become more important than obligation and the present has become more important than the traditions, the tacit knowledge, the repressions, and the whole historically conditioned identity that brought those obligations to us.


The beast that gave us all of this, according to Feldman, was the Enlightenment, and the dominance of reason, individualism and the orientation toward the present that were its products. Reason, after all, can only take us from premises to conclusions. By itself, it provides no premises; and if you take those premises from the present desires of the individual, you may have set the stage for a social and moral mess – a mess which Feldman sees all around him.


Like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, his remedy here is tradition. Revere the past and what it has brought to us and things will get straightened out. People will have a home again, with a clear sense of what to do. They, as individuals, together with the communities and organizations to which they belong, will be served.


But one can see that there’s going to be a problem here. For, given who we are, and indeed given whom we have become, our tradition is itself the Enlightenment. This is especially the case among Americans, who are the apparent audience of Feldman’s book. If we want to show our kids the artifacts of America’s past, we’ll take them to Washington and point to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, The Lincoln Memorial, and so on: each of them pure expressions of the Enlightenment.


Did the Enlightenment simply provide an ersatz substitute for tradition, and is what went before the Enlightenment what Feldman means by tradition? One can easily get that impression, and in doing so one places Feldman within a long line of sociological critics of modernity, and perhaps within an even wider circle of thinkers whose longing for an idyllic past serves as bedrock for a critique of the present. 


But one must urge a caution upon Feldman and anyone else inclined to take this road. The operative term in Enlightenment is “light;” and that needs to be understood in contrast with its opposite: “dark,” as in Dark Ages. Reason and individualism may cause us problems, but stupidity and conformity to a superstitious and ignorant mass hardly recommend themselves as ways to resolve them. Our medieval ancestors may indeed have had a place in their communities and a firm sense of what they believed, while our sense of identity and our beliefs may be anchored in sand. But our understanding of that tenuous anchorage has given rise to the importance we place on the institutions of a free press and the right of individuals to say what is on their mind. It is difficult to see burning heretics at the stake as a morally superior alternative.


The past may be worth honoring, and any conservative will say so. But attempting to transform the present on the model of an idealized past is not so much conservatism as fundamentalism, and that’s quite a different matter.


Feldman’s overall theoretical considerations come to their point in critiques of organization theory. There are two general focuses of his concern. First, he criticizes classic mainstream organizational thinkers, primarily Chester Barnard and Melville Dalton. Second, he addresses the radical management theories that in many ways are the leading edges of contemporary organization thought. These two objects of his attention must be treated separately.


Feldman’s treatment of Barnard and Dalton is based on his assumption that they  represent the rationality and individualism that he finds so pernicious. His critique consists largely of drawing implications from what he takes to be these assumptions, and deriving what he takes to be moral shortcomings in what he takes to be their recommendations. His reasoning (!)  here is often imaginative, but sometimes becomes strained and even tendentious. The problem here is that Barnard and Dalton are not philosophers, reasoning rigorously from clear and unambiguous assumptions. Rather, they are social scientists, trying to understand and explain what they see as best they can. Their virtue is primarily in the insightfulness of their observations, not in the way they arrive at them through deduction, which in fact they don’t.  Nor can Feldman charge that there is fault on their part for not being clear and consistent about their assumptions. Somebody else might be able to manage that, but Feldman, with his assumption of the importance of tacit knowledge, cannot. Finally, his image of the past as moral paragon enables him to take the moral ambiguities Barnard and Dalton describe, and in his view legitimate, and see them, by comparison, as signs of moral inferiority. But call the past into moral question and that strategy comes apart.


Yet if his criticism of the tradition figures of organization theory is not compelling, the same cannot be said of his criticism of the more radical forms of organization theory. Here, the book hits its mark and makes a contribution that more than compensates for the shortcomings I have described.


Feldman takes issue with radical organization theory as it has developed within three intellectual currents. First is what is called critical management theory, which traces its roots back to Habermas and his critique of the way institutions block rational process through power. Second is the attack on cultural authority, and therefore organizational authority inspired by Foucault’s theory of power/knowledge. Third is the representation within organization theory of the deconstructionist position originating with Derrida. Theoretical work along these lines often seems to represent the leading edge of organization theory. It has been widely practiced and lightly criticized. Feldman’s work is almost alone on the other side of the scale. Luckily, its intellectual weight substantially compensates for the numerical imbalance.



Feldman’s work here is complex and sophisticated. It is beyond the scope of this review to represent its depth or breadth. There is one point, though, that seems to me to run through all of his considerations. It is that radical organization theory, of whatever type, is simply critical. It offers nothing in the way of ideas about how to organize better, but rather seeks to destabilize, to undermine, to overthrow, and so on. It is encyclopedic, seeking to tear apart authority relationships, organizational structure, language, and even meaning itself. And it does so with a furious sense of righteousness and moral rectitude. This sense of righteousness is exactly what is reflected in the moral revulsion against conservatism that we saw at the outset.


Feldman shows this claim of righteousness to be baseless. His argument, which he develops comprehensively and systematically, is that by overthrowing the influence of the past, such theory also throws out anything that could serve as the basis of morality. In the absence of the moral ballast that memory and tradition provide, radical theory opens us up to nihilism and the kind of totalitarian control that arises from the destruction of stable meaning. It makes us subject to the will of whoever can mobilize power. Seeing this as moral can only result from losing the whole category of morality, which Feldman calls the reduction of morality to politics.


From where could this sense of morality in nihilism, of virtue in destruction, possibly have arisen? How did it come about that this righteous rebellion against, it does not go too far to say, everything that exists, has gained such prominence in our time? Feldman does not give much attention to this question, saying only that release has become more important than obligation, but this simply expresses the matter in other terms.


 I will not try to answer it either, except to suggest that the ultimate tension here is endemic to civilization. It is the tension between the Dionysian and the Apollonian: between fantasy, imagination, possibility, on the one hand, and realism, self-restraint, and learning from experience on the other. In times of numbing technological advance, times that seem to demonstrate the capacity of humans to push back the bounds of necessity wherever it is encountered, fantasy will inevitably rush in to fill the gap.  It may even seem as if the previous “privileged” position of reality was an imposition and an abuse; and once one takes that position, the lessons of history, along with every limitation and constraint, become simply the modalities of that oppression. That context would explain how the revolt against order could take on a righteous coloration. Yet we need to bear in mind that the abandonment of reality in favor of fantasy does not lead us to the fulfillment of fantasy. It leads rather to the chaos of psychosis and the potential destruction of everything we have gained from civilization. This is the lesson that, within the framework of organization theory, Feldman’s book brings. It will have to be read by every graduate student in organization theory who wants to think of his education as being complete, or for that matter even adequate.




Jost, J.T., J. Glaser, A.W. Kruglanski, and F.J. Sulloway, (2003). Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition, Psychological Bulletin, 129 (3): 339-375



[i]  This is from a comment on the study by Prof. James Lindgren, Director of the Demography of Diversity Project at Northwestern University, on the blog of Australian psychologist John J. Ray (


The Jost article claims that conservatives are angry and fearful and it builds on a literature that claims that conservatives are unhappy. I find this strange, given the decades of superb data showing the opposite. In the NORC General Social Survey (a standard social science database, second only to the U.S. Census in use by U.S. sociologists), the GSS asks the standard survey question about happiness in general. In the 1998-2002 GSS, extreme conservatives are much more likely to report being "very happy" than extreme liberals--47.1% to 31.6%. Earlier years show a similar pattern…


Another claim in the Jost paper is that conservativism is driven by anger and fear. Again, their claims conflict with some of the highest quality data available. In the 1996 GSS, questions were asked about anger and fearfulness. Extreme conservatives were much less likely to report being mad at someone every day in the last week--7.3% to 24.2% for extreme liberals. Extreme conservatives were also less likely to report being fearful in the last week--32.5% to 56.3% for extreme liberals. In other words, a staggering one-quarter of extreme liberals report being mad at someone EVERY DAY and most extreme liberals report being fearful at least once a week.


   Ray’s own voluminous publications on the psychology of conservatism, many of which have been published in the major mainstream journals in the area were also almost entirely ignored. As Ray wryly notes:


The very people who accuse conservatives of oversimplification (In the Berkeley jargon: “lack of integrative complexity”) are themselves proud of their “elegant and unifying explanations” that ignore half the data!