Academic journal article Development and Society

A New "Spirit" of Capitalism? - Globalization and Its Impact on the Diffusion of Neoliberal Management Thinking in Germany and the East Asian Economies

Academic journal article Development and Society

A New "Spirit" of Capitalism? - Globalization and Its Impact on the Diffusion of Neoliberal Management Thinking in Germany and the East Asian Economies

Article excerpt

Mainstream globalization literature is quite clear in its assumptions of how globalization affects industrial enterprise. It is presumed to give rise to transnational companies and subsequently, to a transnational class of managers, who use neoliberal management thinking to accelerate the neoliberal transformation of the economy. The article puts these engrained assumptions to strong empirical test by analysing how transnational the life courses of 475 CEOs of the Top 100 industrial company groups in Germany as well as in Korea, Japan, and China are. Furthermore, having carried out 148 in-depth interviews with Top CEOs, the article asks if in fact a neoliberal spirit of capitalism is at work. The findings indicate that neoliberal management thinking is not emerging and that top managers are not the switchmen leading towards a financial market-driven economy. Although neoliberal management thinking has had some impact on German top managers, the various business systems in East Asia indicate the dominance of more indigenous cultural frames.

Keywords: Economic Elites, New Spirit of Capitalism, Neoliberalism, Globalization, Top-Management, Industrial Enterprises


The discussion about the "spirit of capitalism" 1 is on the one hand a very old one. On the other hand, we do not know very much about the collective mindsets of economic elites that make up this spirit, and its transformation over time (Boltanski and Chiapello 1999, 2005; Lim and Kim 2007; Du Gay and Morgan 2013; Pohlmann 2014). Although there are some global studies on attitudes of managers, like the Globe Study (House et al. 2004), Insead Studies (Lanvin and Evans 2013; Witt 2014), the studies of the Harvard Business School (Bloom et al. 2012; Nobel 2012), and the IBM Studies (IBM 2011), indicating that there is a convergence of perceptions at work, generalizable findings on the adoption of concepts by top managers are not yet available.

The mainstream globalization literature is nevertheless quite clear in its general assumptions about the effects of globalization (Castells 1996; Beck 1997; Münch 2009; Carroll 2010). Basically, two strong assumptions underpin the argument that globalization of the economy and enterprises affects the "spirit of capitalism" and its carrier groups. These are:

1. The spiritual construction of the modern economy today is said to be founded in a new way upon neoliberalism, understood as a form of radical market orientation in economic thinking (Willke 2003; Crouch 2011; Streeck 2013).

2. It is assumed, that an emerging global economic elite acts as pacemakers of this new neoliberal spirit in the world (Castells 1996; Sklair 2001; Carroll 2010), using new management concepts and techniques (Boltanski and Chiapello 2005; Schmidt-Wellenburg 2009; Crouch 2011)

The empirical findings, to be discussed below, will provide proof to support or challenge these two general assumptions.

The research project was funded mainly by the German Research Association and supported by the Asia Research Foundation Grant funded by the Seoul National University Asia Center(#SNUAC-2014-009). It was carried out at the Max Weber Institute at Heidelberg University in cooperation with Seoul National University and Sungkyunkwan University2. It focused on the level of top management (CEOs of the biggest manufacturing companies in eleven countries3) and sought to break down their collective mind sets towards neoliberal management thinking. The aim of the research is to explore the "spiritual construction (or underpinnings)" of the modern economy by analysing the collective knowledge, the norms and values that it is based upon. Drawing upon the theory of the "capitalist spirit", the project concentrated on two of its three major components, which according to Max Weber are the rationales in economic thinking and organizational action (leaving out for the purpose of this article, Weber's third rationale, the conduct of life). …

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