Everyone Reinvents Taylorism
January 17, 2019 8:06 AM   Subscribe

“Yet while they introduced some novel details, neither Gantt nor Taylor created the task system. It has a much longer history and was one of the principal methods of organizing labor under slavery. Under the task system, an enslaved person would be assigned a set “task” or quota that he or she was expected to complete by the end of the day; this was in contrast to the gang system, where enslaved people labored under constant supervision for a set period of time. In some cases, slavers who used the task system even gave monetary bonuses for achievement above set targets. They “dangled the carrot” in a way that resembles not just Gantt’s methods but those of the gig economy today. Indeed, except for the base payment and the critically important ability for workers to quit, Gantt’s new system was in nearly every respect the same as the system used by some slaveholders, a fact that Gantt made no attempt to hide. Rather, he acknowledged that the word “task” was “disliked by many men” because of its connection to slavery, and he regarded this negative connotation as its “principal disadvantage.” How Slavery Inspired Modern Business Management
posted by The Whelk (29 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
 
I’m thinking about how Rosa Luxemburg discussed the need of the workers in Germany to align efforts with the Southern Hemisphere to overthrow capitalism. She wrote of a radical restructuring of society from inside the home all the way to how business and governments function. One of the things that was happening in Germany at the time was “rationalization” of business, which was inspired by how US businesses functioned, all based on this scientific management theory which is so cogently tied back to racism in this article. So many little dots are connecting together and I don’t know how many more centuries we will have keep up this struggle but all the information is out there for us to plainly see that modern business and capitalism is based on horrific foundations and at some point labor is going to have to rise up and root out this poison because god knows the capitalists won’t. All the dots are there connecting US slavery to “rationalization” and eventually to world wars killing millions and now climate catastrophe and in spite of all this knowing, the machine grinds on.

Thank you for posting this, it’s a crucial piece of the puzzle that’s been missing for me.
posted by nikaspark at 8:31 AM on January 17 [15 favorites]


This piece disturbingly reminds me of three items I've read or seen recently.

The first is the science fiction Nantucket series by S.M. Stirling. The story involves time travel to ancient times, in which one modern man becomes an antagonistic ruler. In a description of his motivations for instituting slavery on a wide scale, he is described as not particularly caring whether he used slavery or some other means of labor organization, as long as it corralled as much human labor into doing what he wanted on a large scale. The passage struck me as being a particularly apt description of how large corporations rather sociopathically don't care whether their workers are happy or not, free or not, or empowered or not, as long as they are kept in line and productive at as low a cost as possible.

The second piece is a recent article I read about how all of the concerns about AI becoming sentient and taking over humanity have missed the fact that it has already happened. Namely, that corporations have become an artificially intelligent construct, that only exists to support its own survival and growth (i.e., "the bottom line" or "shareholder value"), at the expense of the human beings that actually work for it. That, fundamentally, the corporation and the algorithms by which it evaluates and interacts with its environment does not exist to edify humans, but to subjugate them to the artificial goals of the corporate entity. And based on this rather sociopathic motivation, it wouldn't matter if the humans that serve it were happy or free or edified, as long as they are kept complacent and productive in service to the AI.

The third is the short video that was going around showing Mitt Romney in his venture capital days. In the video, he talks rather bloodlessly about how successful his company has been in identifying and "harvesting" companies for profit. Taken in conjunction with his later comments that "corporations are people, my friend", well...
posted by darkstar at 8:45 AM on January 17 [14 favorites]


... corporations have become an artificially intelligent construct, that only exists to support its own survival and growth ...

I would argue that, once a critical mass is reached, ALL institutions (corporations, religions, governments, political parties, NGOs ...) exist primarily for their own survival and secondarily for their stated cause(s).
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:14 AM on January 17 [9 favorites]


I mean if you assume there are tasks that need to be done, there are efficient ways of doing them. The question is what are the variables that you consider important for efficiency (in the broadest sense), and what does this cost (in the broadest sense)?

The discovery of efficient ways of doing tasks would have been reached whether we'd had coercion or slavery in the past!

I think most sensible people agree that breaking the backs/lives/souls of workers to extract more value for shareholders is errrr....bad. Efficiency in this case is "capital use" and "maximal profit", where workers are a variable/cost that we simply don't care about as long as they can show up the next day.

But Taylorism and efficiency studies have other uses. Genuine Resource limitations exist!
We shouldn't throw out scientific management and just go back to unstructured work because of its misuse in capitalism.

e.g.

Time as a resource limit. In surgery when you have to treat a lot of people - to save their lives -you need a plan, you need piecework and checklists and regimentation. You need hierarchy, and control for this!

Physical resources as a limit. Conducting scientific experiments to discover things reliably in a vast conceptual search space. You need a plan, system breakdown and to and to stick to it! You need hierarchy, and control for this!

This is also true in systems like, the modern populated world, where we have billions of people.....and ecosystems etc.etc.

There is a dangerous wooly undercurrent in a lot of these arguments that says "If we just went back to pre-modern ways of thinking/knowing/acting, because modern ways came from/involve slavery/colonialism/racism - we'd be fine". We'd be fucked - in more ways than now! Those ways of knowing aren't scaled for an earth with billions of people and the interconnected systems that sustain them. They can't support evidence-based analyses of what we're doing to ourselves and others and how to ameliorate/improve things at this scale - they simply don't have the tools.

Don't throw the scientific baby out with the capitalistic/imperial bathwater, even if the baby was born in the bath.....
posted by lalochezia at 9:38 AM on January 17 [19 favorites]


There's a lot about Taylorism in Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.

Funny, when we did Cheaper By the Dozen as a play in junior high, all of these time-management studies were just eccentricities, not tools being used to break people into automatons.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 9:43 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


Indeed, except for the base payment and the critically important ability for workers to quit, Gantt’s new system was in nearly every respect the same as the system used by some slaveholders

Those are some pretty fucking important differences right there. I don't think it's inherently unreasonable to organize work based on output rather than time spent. Both systems can be either fair or exploitative, depending on how they are implemented. Both systems can be efficient and effective, to different degrees depending on the circumstances.

Saying, "It's just like slavery, only you get paid and you can quit if you want," is a bit disingenuous in my opinion. I mean sure there are parallels, but those parallels exist with all wage labor. What matters is if the pay is fair and if the working conditions are humane.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:57 AM on January 17 [15 favorites]


Don't throw the scientific baby out with the capitalistic/imperial bathwater, even if the baby was born in the bath.....

From the perspective of the owners of Capital, automation that is achieved by a reduction of humans to machines in need of instructions rather than the creation of new machines to give instructions to is just as good as the converse.

From the perspective of human flourishing it is not.

Do not mistake your oppressor for your friend.
posted by PMdixon at 10:24 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


ZenMasterThis: I would argue that, once a critical mass is reached, ALL institutions (corporations, religions, governments, political parties, NGOs ...) exist primarily for their own survival and secondarily for their stated cause(s).

I believe that this notion is related to an aphorism known as "Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy":
In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.
posted by mhum at 10:35 AM on January 17 [8 favorites]


Labor is people and lives not efficiency units.
posted by nikaspark at 10:37 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


The second piece is a recent article I read about how all of the concerns about AI becoming sentient and taking over humanity have missed the fact that it has already happened. Namely, that corporations have become an artificially intelligent construct, that only exists to support its own survival and growth (i.e., "the bottom line" or "shareholder value"), at the expense of the human beings that actually work for it. That, fundamentally, the corporation and the algorithms by which it evaluates and interacts with its environment does not exist to edify humans, but to subjugate them to the artificial goals of the corporate entity. And based on this rather sociopathic motivation, it wouldn't matter if the humans that serve it were happy or free or edified, as long as they are kept complacent and productive in service to the AI.
I would love to read this if you can share a link.
posted by natteringnabob at 11:05 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


Labor is people and lives not efficiency units.

What about labor that saves people's lives?
posted by lalochezia at 11:52 AM on January 17


What about labor that saves people's lives?

for me that's part of a lot of reading of Rosa Luxemburg and landing on this sentence in my very first comment of this thread:

I’m thinking about how Rosa Luxemburg discussed the need of the workers in Germany to align efforts with the Southern Hemisphere to overthrow capitalism. She wrote of a radical restructuring of society from inside the home all the way to how business and governments function.

If you wanna know where I'm coming from you can start there and read more about the life of Rosa and her writings and critiques of her writings. For me it resonates, for others maybe not so much.

Also maybe I'm totally misunderstanding your comment. Apologies if so.
posted by nikaspark at 12:17 PM on January 17


I took one (mandatory) management class as part of my library masters degree and mentally noped out of it once I realized it was basically nothing but the instruction of manipulation techniques.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:29 PM on January 17 [6 favorites]


Even when better options exist, once something is established, it's hard to overcome. See also open-plan offices. All the research shows they suck, but they're cheap so they will probably never go away.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 12:57 PM on January 17 [4 favorites]


I'm confused by some comments here. Is Taylorism or scientific management actually helpful for maximizing safety? I did not think it was.

Work done for human well-being needs to be done successfully - clean water, effective surgery, uncontaminated food, and so on are vital.

Scientific-method-related approaches to this problem and "scientific management" are quite distinct, I thought. I'm not proposing we scrap Taylorism in favor of "pre-colonial ways of knowing," but abandon seriously flawed approaches in favor of newer, better, less oppressive ways of not killing patients or giving everybody salmonella.

The most important "resource" is human life. We possess an Imperial fuck-tonne of evidence that strong hierarchy weakens human feedback loops - if I fear and resent my manager and am discouraged from sending any information to people outside my team, anything I notice or discover about my work situation is much less likely to travel through the organization than if people are not dick faces.

tl;dr: "scientific management" is not well-supported by actual science, pls go read Leveson's Engineering a Safer World and similar.
posted by bagel at 1:44 PM on January 17 [11 favorites]


A while ago, I read The Half Has Never Been Told, about slavery. They described what the blurb above refers to as 'the task system'.

The thing is, I had previously read an Amazon worker's account of what it was like to work in an Amazon warehouse. No one is whipping warehouse workers, obviously, but some eerie similarities emerged...

(I do recommend The Half Has Never Been Told, but be warned it is not light reading. It's dreadfully comprehensive, but worth the read to understand that part of the US's history.)
posted by Quackles at 2:03 PM on January 17


Also, piecework means "a worker is compensated based on how many shirts they sew, rooms they clean, or baskets of tomatoes they pick," not generally a practice seen in operating rooms or other places where the quality of work matters very much. The carefully managed division of responsibility is not piecework.

If you want to be operated on by people who are literally treated like tenement garment workers, I feel like you're gonna have a bad time.
posted by bagel at 3:04 PM on January 17 [4 favorites]


It was actually a discussion here on the blue a few years ago that made it click in my head that my bachelor's degree in Organizational Leadership was really a degree in Taylorism / Scientific Management. Then I went and got an MBA.

I'm probably lucky you all let me hang out here.
posted by COD at 3:04 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]


A lot of solar companies (but not mine) have panel pay. Crews get a bounty for each mod they lay, as an incentive to work faster.

Consider that most residential solar is installed on rooftops.

Consider the safety implications of that.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:50 PM on January 17 [5 favorites]



Scientific-method-related approaches to this problem and "scientific management" are quite distinct, I thought.


My error. I have broadly conflated the two; my issue is against those who want to negate the former as a way of dealing with workplaces (and human processes in general) not achieving their micro- and macro- goals.



Also, piecework means "a worker is compensated based on how many shirts they sew, rooms they clean, or baskets of tomatoes they pick," not generally a practice seen in operating rooms or other places where the quality of work matters very much. The carefully managed division of responsibility is not piecework.


My error in using the term. Apologies.
posted by lalochezia at 5:23 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


No one is whipping Amazon workers, but if it’s choose to work or starve that’s not really freedom is it? It’s the freedom to die under a bridge. Wage slavery and chattel slavery are different but related.

There’s a reason we call it fully automated luxury gay space communism. We shouldn’t deny ourselves the flower of technological progress, no one is an anachro-primitivist here, but they must be turned toward human rights and human needs. A factory isn’t a monster if the workers own the means of production, if they can decide how to organize their labor and production and get all the surplus value from thier labor and maybe decided not to peruse absolute maximum profit gains and growth regardless of any other factor.
posted by The Whelk at 6:18 PM on January 17 [6 favorites]


Not disputing the concept of wage slavery, just not sure that it makes a big intrinsic difference whether one is paid by the piece or by the hour. Either system can be either humane or inhumane, depending on the specifics of the implementation.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:32 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


You’re talking about implementations of a protocol that I believe is fundamentally broken.
posted by nikaspark at 12:27 AM on January 18


That’s fine, but I think the person suggesting overthrowing the current system has an obligation to at least plausibly outline whatever replacement they have in mind and explain a) why it will be better and b) what will prevent it reverting to some facsimile of the current system in disguise (or worse).

In particular, what exactly is going to prevent an elite forming within the new system that will grab hold of the reins of power and redirect the fruits of production into their own pockets? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
posted by pharm at 10:28 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

not when your boss rotates in position or you can vote your boss out of power or you don't actually have a boss
posted by The Whelk at 7:57 PM on January 18 [1 favorite]


In particular, what exactly is going to prevent an elite forming within the new system that will grab hold of the reins of power and redirect the fruits of production into their own pockets?

Potlatches are one traditional solution.
posted by PMdixon at 7:58 PM on January 18


Since he wasn't mentioned earlier in the article, and barely in the comments, Frank Gilbreth of Cheaper by the Dozen fame was fairly unique in time-and-motion study circles by coming up from the laboring classes (starting as a smartass junior bricklayer). Reputation and history seem to remember the philosophy that he and his collaborator/wife Dr Lillian Moller Gilbreth encompassed as being incompatible with Taylorism.

Notably, whereas Taylor was all about speeding up processes and devil take the hindmost, the Gilbreths were about actually making processes more efficient.

Notably, the Soviet Union vigorously embraced the principles of Taylorism, the "mechanization of man" as Taylorism's biggest booster described it (Aleksei Gastev). Taylorism comes readymade for any authoritarian polity.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 8:02 PM on January 18 [6 favorites]


You’re talking about implementations of a protocol that I believe is fundamentally broken.

I mean yes, I just don't see how either production-based or time-based employment is inherently more exploitative than the other, that's all. You could have a worker's cooperative where people were compensated based on the share of the production that they contributed to, and you could (and did) have chattel slavery where slaves were forced to work for set periods of time. The inverse is also true.

The fairest is a cooperative situation in which everyone is awarded an equal share of the fruits of production, and other incentives besides the threat of starvation and homelessness are used to ensure high overall productivity.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:31 PM on January 18 [1 favorite]




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