contra Maslow

I really should have guessed, but I never did know that Ol’ Man Maslow was a management consultant. Sam Haselby at Aeon:

Why was corporate America drawn to [Maslow’s] hierarchy of needs? They liked it because it offered both a grand narrative and master explanation for human psychology in a changing society and a practical guide to managing people. It is precisely in the tension between these two visions of the hierarchy of needs – the reductive diagram and the rich social theory – that the hierarchy of needs acquires its power and its politics.


It is certainly not coincidental that a motivational theory dubbed the ‘hierarchy’ of needs was adopted in companies ruled by hierarchical organisational charts. The hierarchy of needs could all too easily map onto work hierarchies, with jobs at the top providing more scope for self-actualisation (while also commanding higher paychecks). Uneven distributions of work and workers surround the promise of self-actualised work; devalued work, which we don’t expect to bring satisfaction, and on the flipside, overvalued work, supposed to be all of life.

Haselby goes on to note that Maslow was not the origin of the notion of self-actualised labour, and points to Max Weber. But of course Weber got at least some elements of that notion from Marx… and I imagine someone better read in Marx than me could make a case that he in turn probably picked some of it up from Adam Smith and the other “bourgeois economists”. Which is not to rag on Marx, as such, so much as to point out (as many far smarter people than me have done before — IIRC, this is a major plank of Gorz’s Critique of Economic Reason, not that I’ve read the thing myself) that, perhaps inescapably, even the most critical understandings of capitalism end up accepting some of its fundamental assumptions.

This is, at a guess, because those assumptions long preceded capitalism’s emergence.… Weber put it down (at least in part) to the Protestant mind-set, after all, and Nietzsche was perhaps getting at a similar (though broader) point when he spoke of “slave morality”. So perhaps there’s a specifically Christian or even Abrahamic root to the notion of self-actualisation through work… though that’s perhaps a very blinkered and western thing to say, I dunno. Any thoughts out there?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.