On untethering

The Financial Times recently showcased how people are buying virtual property. According to the article, people are investing real money into what might best be described as “unreal estate”, squandering cash in what gets called the metaverse. This is an ethereal realm formed from code that is driven through technology developments like blockchain, cryptocurrency and the snappily named non-fungible tokens (NFT). The piece made the following declaration:

‘Welcome to the future of real estate – at least according to enthusiasts, who point to the millions of dollars already being thrown into the space. For its detractors, it looks like a rehash of earlier virtual worlds, with blockchain hype stuck on.’

This monetisation of virtuality is being achieved through what some take to be the freest capitalist market there has ever been. After all, as libertarians and Leftists alike enthuse, the development of blockchain has broken the link between the nation state (or supra-national formation) and the supply and valorisation of currency.

The madness of the market in cyberspace

Cui bono, one is left to wonder? Clearly, those with so much money in the coffers that they can afford to seek a return beyond the real and out in a technological construction. Paris Hilton – whose talent derives solely from her surname, so it appears – could be found DJ-ing in the metaverse, apparently, so it looks to be yet another playground for the super-rich, a place where their personal brands have an absurd amount of value.

Who else, though? Step forward the global corporations who ceaselessly seek to ram their names, logos and slogans down our throats until we gag. As the FT piece explains,

‘The German sports company Adidas bought land in The Sandbox last year, describing its “acquisition of a plot of land on the platform {as} a way of expressing our excitement around the possibilities it holds”’

Disregarding the corporate anthropomorphism contained in that ominous “Our”, what are the possibilities that a worldwide profit-seeking peddler of shorts and trainers could possibly perceive in line upon line of code? We’ll just leave that question there…

To return to the market aspect of this, there are storefronts for sale in this space. And in keeping with the physical market for property, where you are buying not just an arrangement of bricks and mortar but also location, in respect to things like outstanding schools and the like, prices in the metaverse are inflated by similar things. So, the FT observes, ‘Proximity to points of interest, such as the virtual mansion the rapper Snoop Dogg is building, will probably command higher value.

All this frivolity is taking place at a time when an overheated market is denying far too many people a home – and where rough sleeping appears to be once again very much on the rise. The wealth inequalities that mean that some people can indulge themselves in this way whilst war-torn corners of the world starve and there are upticks in the numbers in poverty in the developed world reminds us how we’ve allowed an iniquitous system to become commonplace.

Capitalism adrift – yet resurgent

While the notion of the metaverse is new, allowing finance capital to float free of the economic foundations of the productive system has been argued to be a long-term capitalist trend. The term “metaverse” encompasses a range of technological and ecosystemic developments, including game platforms like Roblox and the Internet of Things. It has been helpfully defined thus:

‘[A] virtual environment blending physical and digital, facilitated by the convergence between the Internet and Web technologies, and Extended Reality (XR).’

Lee et al (2021) All one needs to know about metaverse: A complete survey on technological singularity, virtual ecosystem, and research agenda.

This fantastical confection is founded on an assemblage of technologies that serves merely to expand the boundaries of capitalism beyond the physical. Given that this type of expansion in the physical world has seen a depletion of our resources and the danger that the globe will be fried to a crisp because of this rapaciousness, this could be seen as beneficial – although complex causality reminds us that the infrastructure that supports this craziness comes with an ecological cost. However, unfortunately it also ideologizes the notion that growth is unquestionably a good thing, which experience to date contests.

It is also the next step on the road of casino capitalism, where profit and return on investment is not meaningfully tethered to the practical business of creating goods and services to meet consumer need. Again, the Big Bang in the City was founded on technological shifts and saw open plan offices full of people in shirt sleeves shouting into their telephones as they gambled on financial products and futures. And it laid the ground for the 2008 crisis.


One school of economic thought arising out of Marxian analyses argues persuasively that the relationship between the financial sector and the foundational productive forces has not simply frayed but has seemingly been broken since the 1970s.

Historically, forces of production have created an abundance of goods and services which – through labour’s crucial contribution and their consumption through the market mechanism – has generated profit. However, nowadays, for a number of reasons, there has been a turn to financialisation, explained by Foster (2007) thus:

‘For the owners of capital the dilemma is what to do with the immense surpluses at their disposal in the face of the dearth of investment opportunities. Their main solutions from the 1970s on was to expand their demand for financial products as a means of maintaining and expanding their money capital. On the supply side of this process, financial institutions stepped forward with a vast array of new financial instruments: futures, options, derivatives, hedge funds etc. The result was skyrocketing financial speculation that has persisted now for decades.’

Why does this matter to anyone other than the followers of the “dismal science”? Well, as Lapavitsas (2013) argues, the economic crisis of 2008 arose out of risky mortgage lending and its packaging into financial products to be traded outwith any considerations of practical production.

The severing of the ties between production and finance outlined here means that investment is more about speculation these days, despite what the TV programme “Dragon’s Den” might seem to suggest, and it is an altogether more ethereal pursuit, undertaken some distance from the practicalities of making things to offer to market to meet humanity’s needs.

Leaders let loose – yet ever demanding

It has been argued here in several posts that the modern corporation is topped with a cadre of senior leaders who occupy a space so distanced from the practicalities of the business that they inevitably end up focused on purely epiphenomenal matters.

Hence, we find these highly paid individuals absorbed by activity that is alien to the actuality of doing what the business does. Instead, they spend their time shaping visions, writing mission statements, and crafting corporate values. Off the back of this – and where these individuals don’t outsource their thinking to professional services companies – they busy themselves with crafting dry “dead letters” that they seek to dignify with the title “strategy”.

A study of train drivers and station agents on the Paris Metro published in 2020 offers interesting insight to consider alongside this theoretical notion of what we are calling leadership distance. The research engaged with people from both of those occupational groups who had been promoted into managerial roles, something that, in corporate life, is generally seen as a good thing. However, this interesting finding is offered:

‘Although the job tasks and duties for their new managerial roles were nearly identical, former drivers and former station agents experienced these roles differently. After becoming managers, the majority of former drivers experienced disenchantment with their managerial jobs, or what we call managerial blues. They viewed their managerial jobs as comparatively less meaningful that their previous jobs and wanted to exit the managerial ranks soon after having joined them. By contrast, most former station agents were quite fulfilled in their jobs and, therefore, wanted to stay in management.’

(Bourmault & Anteby)

The authors offer the possible explanation that, prior to their promotion, the drivers enjoyed a job where their impact on the lives of others was directly observable, and their work was conducted with a degree of autonomy. Hence, they concluded that, ‘…for managers from jobs where feelings of personal responsibility are strong (such as nurses, surgeons, police officers, and subway drivers), becoming a manager can lead to unfulfilled expectations, which can explain their managerial blues. Hence, we suggest that for some new managers, stepping up also entails stepping down.’

Our interpretation is simply that progress up the managerial ladder – especially for someone who is actively immersed and professionally invested in the work of the organisation – creates a noticeable and personally disruptive distance between the real work and what keeps the managerial cadre busy on a day-to-day basis. And, having climbed that little bit, it is easier to look up the tree to the topmost branches where just how far away those people are from the frontline of the business will be painfully apparent.

Management intermediated

In contrast with the somewhat slippery idea of “leadership”, the theory and practice of management as a discipline does at least have something tangible about it. While for some that step up may feel like a step away, it is possible to make the case that it serves some purpose, other than to simply reproduce itself. In any corporate context and in broad outline, there are three crudely sketched corporate categories: performers; managers of performers; and managers of managers.

Within each of those broad categories there are, of course, calibrations and anomalies. So, at the top of the managers of managers is where we find the executive teams and very senior leaders, stratospherically adrift from the detail of the work.

In the realm of the managers of performers, we see people perhaps awkwardly bridging the role of worker and manager. However, the latter element of their role is premised on a human-to-human connection, which has been the case for most of our industrial history – and so it feels more anchored in the doing of the work. Unfortunately, there is a trend towards the technologization of those relations, which has a tendency to render them brittle and to shatter them, in the name of efficiency and effectiveness. A spokesperson from the Trades Union Congress is quoted as follows:

‘TUC AI lead Mary Towers told Labour Research: “Our view is that algorithmic management largely started as a phenomenon in the so-called gig economy, particularly in the context of platform work. But it’s now spread way beyond that and into the entirety of the labour market and into sectors that one wouldn’t necessarily anticipate.”’

It is suggested that this algorithmic management intensifies managerial power in respect to the control of work, its structuration and process, but – at the same time – diminishes the capacity for managers as individuals to intervene in the social context of the workplace in order to manage things and get things done. For some, this seems to herald the advent of Scientific Management 2.0.

Untethering as a trait of modern business

In this post, we have explored a number of corporate circumstances where it looks as though crucial links have been severed. In the economic realm, we have suggested that financialisation – the snapping of the connection between the forces of production and the financial market – has laid the foundation for the extension of capitalism and its market economy into the entirely virtual realm, thereby severing any connection between business and reality.

Alongside this, we have suggested once more that the senior leadership of large organisations are structurally distanced from the business of their business and hence spend an inordinate amount of time making demands for data and indulging the ephemeral in the corporate realm. And this is compounded by the way in which surveillant workplace technologies are chipping away at the tie between worker and manager in favour of algorithmic management.

To our mind, this disarticulation is unhelpful, as the untethering serves to fragment the socio-economic realm and dismantle its interdependencies. It is a tendency that means that we can too easily lose sight of the importance of connectedness and the vitality of relations in terms of all human endeavours.

In the midst of all of this unwanted untethering, it’s time for each of us to anchor ourselves alongside others so as to come together to make sense of the world – and thence to shape it.

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