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Agile™ Methods as Salvage Capitalism

Salvage capitalism is the ability for capitalist process to take advantage of non-capitalist systems and processes. Agile™ is way to structure a team to generate value.

How is it that capitalism is at once so generative, flexible, and creative, and, simultaneously, so effective at doing certain things, such as making rich people richer? I address this question by investigating the edges of what can conceivably be called capitalism, where non-capitalist forms of value are constantly being converted into capitalist value.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

“Agile” project management and team systems are structured in a way as to focus on the pro-social impulses of wanting to do helpful things for real people, to listen to them, to learn from your work, and to have agency and control over the outcomes and processes of that work. By eliding the responsibility of who is deciding to do what, and framing a team as an autonomous zone of self-governance, the work that is external to capitalist accumulation — or weighs only in the “cost” column of a cost/benefit analysis — like listening, learning, growing, navigating ambiguity becomes captured by the organization.

If this were the real state of things, then an organizational structure would be much less concerned with the broader level conceptions around “vision” or “profitability”. An organization would be structured to enable and allow for individual human flourishing and the efficient application of skillsets to compelling problems. However, the lived purpose of capitalist organizations is to provide the gravity needed to single-mindedly accumulate as much capital as possible. To this purpose, teams are structured and applied to achieve the end of accumulation rather than the goals of distribution.

This is the tension that exists in teams that practice agile methodologies – the feeling and understanding of the liminal boundary around ones autonomous zone. In the worst cases, the team is sharply aware of the false pretense of their autonomy and sees the project as a hypocritical sham, and in the best the boundary and limits remain over the horizon. In either case, the organization is counting on the team to produce what it understands as value.