The winner takes it all

Management guides claim that anyone can make it, if they work hard enough. By promoting this false d

Winning: the ultimate business how-to book
Jack Welch with Suzy Welch HarperCollins, 372pp, £12.99
ISBN 0007197675

You Can't Win a Fight With Your Boss and 55 Other Rules for Success
Tom Markert HarperCollins, 146pp, £9.99
ISBN 0007227515

The Servant Leader: unleashing the power of your people
50 Cautionary Tales for Managers Peter Honey, How To Books, 262pp, £12.99
ISBN 0749445335

Bonjour Laziness: why hard work doesn't pay
Corinne Maier, Orion, 208pp, £6.99
ISBN 1400096286

In 1736, the American Puritan Benjamin Franklin published a pamphlet called "Necessary Hints to Those That Would Be Rich"; this was followed in 1748 by "Advice to a Young Tradesman". In these early management training guides, Franklin outlines the principles of a new kind of capitalism, then in its infancy: riches are to be pursued for their own sake; it must be remembered that "time is money".

Franklin goes on to recommend hard work and stresses the importance of appearing industrious: "The most trifling actions that affect a man's credit are to be regarded. The sound of your hammer at five in the morning, or eight at night, heard by a creditor, makes him easy six months longer; but if he sees you at a billiard table, or hears your voice at a tavern, when you should be at work, he sends for his money the next day . . . it makes you appear a careful as well as an honest tradesman."

As Max Weber pointed out in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Franklin promotes avarice, hypocrisy and the accumulation of wealth as if they were ethical principles. The emphasis is on how you are perceived. It doesn't matter if you go to the tavern - just don't let your boss see you there. Qualities such as honesty are promoted not because they are essential virtues, but because they might be useful business tools.

Nearly three centuries later, the same principles are being taught to the young and ambitious. Greed is good. Everything you do must be in the service of profit, growth and share price. Today this ideology is promoted through management books, which in recent years have become a publishing phenomenon (nearly a million are sold in the UK each year; many more are sold in the US). Clearly there is a huge desire to discover the secrets of "doing well" in business. Unfortunately these books are unlikely to help anyone discover them. What they promote is one of the central myths of capitalism - that, purely by virtue of hard work, anybody can get to the top.

The books under review recommend all sorts of immoral actions. In the old days, greed and covetousness were seen as sinful; now they are encouraged. Jack Welch's Winning sets the tone. The author grins manically from the cover - despite the silver hair, manicured nails and perfect teeth, he looks like Beelzebub incarnate. Welch became CEO of General Electric after beginning his corporate life in plastics. He is well known in the business world as a "great CEO" - which, roughly translated, means that he has made loads of money. So now he feels qualified to advise young men and women how to "win". As Welch explains in his grammar-free prose:
And that is what this book is about - winning. Probably no other topic could have made me want to write again!
Because I think winning is great. Not good - great.

But why is "winning" so great? Because, says Welch, it enables people to make lots of money which . . . erm . . . enables them to "get better healthcare, buy vacation homes, and secure a comfortable retirement". That's it. Those are the three goals of our mortal existence, otherwise known as more pills, more mortgages and more burglar alarms. Whatever happened to joy, pleasure, brotherhood? Whatever happened to enjoying life? Whatever happened to creativity? Whatever happened to love?

To be fair, Welch does think workers should be happy. Except that, in his world, happiness is called "employee satisfaction results". The better the results, the more money is made. Therefore, happiness is a good idea. It's the same with honesty. "I have always been a huge proponent of candor," he says, before going on to explain why honesty is the best policy in business. Displaying his trademark Franklinesque hypocrisy, he advocates honesty in your dealings with others not because it is ethical, but because it can be useful for making money.

Some of the traits Welch looks for in potential staff are a little worrying: "They're sports trivia nuts or they're fanatical supporters of their alma maters or they're political junkies." Nuts, fanatical, junkies: in the everyday world, being insane, a fundamentalist or a drug addict might be considered bad; in business, it seems, the crazier you are the better. All of which summons up a picture of a madhouse office, with grinning employees giving each other high-fives, shouting "whoop!" and exploding with joy because they have just beaten someone else to a pulp. And Welch warns that you can't be too mad: "Hire and promote only true believers and get-on-with-it types . . . ferret out and get rid of resisters, even if their performance is satisfactory."

The problem with this is that not everybody can be a winner. There is no room at the top of the pyramid. For every feudal overlord like Welch, there are a million toiling serfs, sweatshop workers, hamburger flippers and debt- ridden losers. It's a similar story in You Can't Win a Fight With Your Boss, in which Tom Markert, described as "global chief marketing and client service officer for information giant ACNielsen", tells us to work, work, work, because time is money: "You can forget lunch breaks. You can't make money for a company while you're eating lunch . . . if you don't put in the hours, someone just as smart and clever as you will. Fact of life: the strong survive." Life is a brutal competition: ignore Markert's rules, "and you might just end up as roadkill - lying dead by the side of the corporate highway as others drive right past you". The man even takes pride in behaving like an arsehole: "I have always made a habit of walking around early and late to personally see who's pumping it out. If they are getting results and working harder than everyone else, I promote them."

Markert shares Welch's view that certain moral qualities can be useful in business - sincerity, for example, when sucking up to the boss ("The trick is to simply be sincere and charming"). He advises that "having friends at work is not a great idea", and he offers a staggering homily about plane travel. Markert claims that he always introduces himself to the person sitting next to him on the plane. Oh, that's sweet, you think. But then he explains this is "not to be nice"; it's because he wants to find out whether the other guy is a competitor before he gets out his laptop and displays confidential information. In such a world, even eating is seen as a business tool: "I'm a recent convert to eating well . . . food is fuel. Fuel is an element of performance. Bad fuel means low performance."

In The Servant Leader: unleashing the power of your people, Robert P Neuschel trots out more of the same. The book's philosophy is based on the following goals: "become the best . . . come out a winner and stay alive". The goal of "survival" is frequently mentioned. Again, there is a euphemistic reframing of moral virtues in the language of competitive commerce. What most people would describe as friendliness Neuschel calls "success in interpersonal relations".

The same tenets are repeated in these books: all variety in life is subservient to the goal of making money; individual character traits are fine so long as they don't hinder profits and share prices. "Eccentricities are welcome provided they do not have a detrimental effect on people's performance," warns Peter Honey in 50 Cautionary Tales for Managers. None of these authors ever mentions what the company he works for actually makes. Not once does Welch or Markert talk of quality of craftsmanship or the satisfaction of creativity; their sole interest is in growth, success and profits. Where the profits come from is immaterial. It could be cat food, computers or cars, any old stuff - as long as it makes money.

Given that only a tiny handful of us can ever "win", it is clear that the real function of these books is to act as sophisticated whips for slaves. The idea that we will one day be "successful" keeps us working hard. "Every call for productivity under the conditions chosen by capitalist economics is a call to slavery," wrote the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem in his great 1967 book Traité de savoir-vivre à l'usage des jeunes générations, whose title is a brilliant parody of these advice-to-a-young-tradesman-type books. "Nowadays ambition and the love of a job well done are the indelible mark of defeat and of the most mindless submission."

These architects of misery never exhibit the slightest concern for ecological issues: these are the sorts of guys who have been wrecking the planet, yet they present themselves as heroes. Nor, unsurprisingly, do they acknowledge the role of good fortune in business. They never say: I was just lucky in that, for 20 years, the markets went my way and I have no idea why.

We should be grateful, then, for Corinne Maier's Bonjour Laziness: why hard work doesn't pay. Written by a French intellectual who worked for many years for a big corporation, it picks up the Situationists' credo of "ne travaillez jamais". Maier exposes the reality behind the myth promoted by the rest of these books: the capitalist dream is, in fact, a nightmare for most. The good news is that, of all of these works, Bonjour Laziness is proving most popular, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in 30 countries. Maybe we are realising that the road Franklin led us down is a dead end.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of the Idler and author of "How to Be Idle" (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 03 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, 7/7: one year on