Monday, November 4, 2013

The origin of modern self-realization through work.

(Confession: I started this post under the title of "Our debt to communism" but realized I was writing nonsense about half way through. The shift in direction is fairly obvious with the abrupt end. )

The dominate manufacturing model during the early 20th century was so-called scientific management or Taylorism. Taylorism, named after it's developer Frederick Taylor, attempted to apply scientific principles of engineering to human labour and manufacturing. It objectified human beings into machine cogs, stripped of all individualism and subjectivity.

Scientific management and it's drive for ever greater profits and efficiency resulted in a miserable working environment. Ford for example famously hired 300 employees for every 100 positions to compensate for their high turnover. Violent industrial strikes occurred regularly.  In 1919 35,000  Seattle shipyard workers went on strike seeking wage increases. Over 100 local unions joined in support. Newspapers were aghast, seeing Russian influence in the strikes. The strike eventually collapsed and the Seattle Mayor enjoyed a lecture tour on the dangers of domestic Bolshevism. 1919 saw other high profile strike action by groups as diverse as the Boston police and steel workers.  By 1920, the Attorney General Michell Palmer resorted to deporting supposed radical socialists, often identified purely by membership of political groups.

This collective period of industrial unrest became known as the Red Scare. In the face of such industrial unrest and rising national paranoia, a new approach was sought to migrate the risk of further strike action while simultaneously advancing the endless drive for increased profits. This new approach revealed itself through the Hawthorne Studies -  a long running series of experiments at a Western Electrics factory at Hawthorne throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s. The Studies began as another research project into worker productivity but their findings planted the seeds of our modern work practices :

The existence of the informal organization, argued the Hawthorne researchers, meant that shaping human behavior was much more complicated than the then-dominant paradigm of scientific management had led managers to believe. The social system, which defined a worker’s relation to her work and to her companions, was not the product of rational engineering but of actual, deep-rooted human associations and sentiments
Whereas scientific management made the simplification of work and the indifference of workers to anything but a financial reward seem almost both inevitable and desirable, the Hawthorne researchers identified that much of what individuals found meaningful in work was their association with others. The economic rewards of work were potentially picayune compared to the feeling of solidarity and worth created among individuals working together toward a common end. A manager’s effectiveness, therefore, could be measured on the extent to which those in the organization internalized a common purpose and perceived the connection between their actions and the organization’s ability to fulfill this common purpose. Management, then, was not about controlling human behavior but unleashing human possibility. By viewing the organization as a rationally engineered machine, scientific management had perverted the social character of work and thereby negated the individual. [link]
This is modern capitalism explained in two short paragraphs: The self-realization of human potential under a common purpose in the workplace. This new method of business organization through behaviour psychology caused traditional power structures to become more informal with managers as leaders charged to help their teams grow and develop. It lies behind universities and recruitment agencies promising to unleash our potential. And it's the regretful longing in a middle aged man as he looks over his shattered dreams and nostalgically laments that 'I had potential once'.
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