A world run by the Men In Grey


“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”

 C. S. Lewis. 1942. From the Preface of The Screwtape Letters

When I left university in 1979 in the creative industries it appeared that the managers and administrators were a joke; “The Suits”, the grey men who didn’t have the talent to actually ‘do anything’ but who filled in the forms and filled in the spreadsheets for those who actually had the talent, were a joke. The real prestige and status was accorded to the ‘creatives’; the writers, artists, copywriters, art directors, designers, musicians, graphic artists, comics, performers…  and the list goes on. Today of course those who actually ‘do’ anything creative live financially precarious lives at the beck and call of those very same grey men in suits.

One of the consequences of the sainted Maggie Thatcher’s election in 1979 is that the men in grey who had seen their power eroded during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, and were so mercilessly mocked in popular culture, regained control. And their resentment and desire for revenge was so powerful that they set about systematically undermining the livelihoods of those arrogant and cocky ‘creatives’. So much so that at the BBC for example there are now virtually no production staff with full-time jobs, nearly all production staff have become freelancers and members of that growing class of financially insecure middle-class creative workers, dubbed by Guy Standing as the Precariat . Virtually the only people in UK TV who now have full-time jobs, paid holidays, employment protection and adequate pension provision are the managers, those very same men in grey who 30 years ago were the butt of all our jokes.

And these ultra-rational, ultra-profesional men in grey hold meetings on a daily basis that directly effect the lives of the rest of us in the most appalling ways, and it is all done just as C. S. Lewis said it was in 1942.

The metaphor for all this that so powerfully affected me was the 2001 film, Conspiracy, starring Kenneth Branagh which is a dramatic recreation of the Wannsee Conference where the Nazi ‘Final Solution’ phase of the Holocaust was devised. What is striking about the film is just how ‘professional’ and ‘rational’ the proceedings were. It seems our trusted leaders are allowed to say anything as long as they say it calmly, rationally and above all ‘professionally’.

And that is of course how ‘managerialism’ works and why it is so offensive to so many of us; because it seeks to use a ‘rational’ and ‘professional’ mode of discourse to disguise from the participants themselves and the victims, the unpleasant reality of the decisions they are making; i.e. to dehumanise the process, to reduce workers to the status of ‘human resources’ expressed as numbers on a spreadsheet, instead of as human beings of equal value to the men in grey.

Deep down these besuited jerks recognise this appalling reality and in order to try to reconcile their risk-free, time-serving, bureaucratic lives with their own humanity, the men especially, construct a ludicrous self-deluded self-image of themselves as ‘corporate warriors’. Sun Tzu’s, The Art of War, written around 500 BC and Machiavelli’s, The Prince, are two of the best-selling business self-help books! So while destroying the lives of the rest of us these men in grey are still playing at Cowboys & Indians in the playground!

And this is equally true in the private and public sectors. Don’t be fooled into thinking private corporations are less dominated by the men in grey. One mid-ranking bureaucrat I know who designs air conditioning systems in the private sector, calls himself, ‘The Silver Fox’, because of his grey hair and masterly political guile in the corporate jungle. A university management bureaucrat I know once proudly self-identified himself as the womanising, conniving bastard, Don Draper, from TV’s, Mad Men. This guy’s actual job is basically filling in forms for HEFCE, QAA and all the other anachronisms that now rule UK Universities. As Bertolt Brecht once said, “Why be a man when you can be successful.” Both these corporate Suits, private and public sector, have created a delusional fantasy world in which they see themselves as ultra-smart, pseudo warriors when in fact they are simply corporate bureaucrats.

It would be laughable wouldn’t it, if it weren’t for the fact that these deluded, grandiose idiots now rule the world. Thatcher would have claimed that she dreamt of a world of inspired and inspiring, capitalist ‘entrepreneurs’ who would lead us forward into a golden age of freedom, prosperity and technological progress. Setting aside the incoherence of Thatcher’s vision we can say that it failed even on it’s terms because what we actually got was a world run by the time-serving, ‘professional’ men in grey who have all taken basically the same MBA course and who all spout basically the same nonsense and who haven’t had a ‘creative’ idea in their lives. So much so that one of the biggest growth areas in Management Training is in ‘creativity training’, where the grey men are encouraged to get out their crayoning sets and ‘free their minds’. Pricks.

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