U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Is Taylorism Redeemable?


One of my favorite sessions from the second USIH conference was one put together by our own Mike O’Connor. The panel was cleverly titled, “To Market, To Market: American Thinkers Confront Twentieth-Century Capitalism,” and was chaired by Jennifer Burns of recent Daily Show fame. Burns is the author of a new biography of Ayn Rand.

All of the papers were excellent. O’Connor convincingly argued that Henry Wallace gave full intellectual expression to the New Deal in his book, Sixty Million Jobs. But the bulk of the post-presentation conversation was spent on Caitlin Rosenthal’s paper, “Frederick W. Taylor: The Optimistic Science of Scientific Management.” Rosenthal contended that Taylor is misremembered as anti-worker, partly the result of decades of labor historiography, which paints Taylor, through a moral lens, as a tool of the corporate managers seeking to discipline an increasingly unruly industrial workforce. Rosenthal conducted a close reading of “Scientific Management,” replete with rhetoric friendly to the cause of the laboring class, to recuperate Taylor. She was somewhat convincing in this, but I took issue during the Q&A session with her conclusion, where she stated that there are plenty of examples in history that point towards capital-labor cooperation. She implied that efficiency is good for everyone, the further implication of which seemed to be that in addition to Taylor, Taylorism is worthy of redemption.

I’m all for overturning conventional wisdom. But in this case, the wisdom of the labor historians, and other assorted left-leaning intellectuals–such as Jill Lepore, who recently wrote an entertaining New Yorker article on Taylor--might be conventional, but it’s still wisdom. Taylorism is not just about efficiency. It’s about disciplining a workforce. Perhaps if we think about Taylorism in terms more understandable to our everyday experiences, such as Taylorism in the academy, it would be less redeemable. Sure, shifting the bulk of teaching to on-line courses is more efficient in terms of cost. But it’s bad for the academic workforce… not to mention for education. IS Taylorism redeemable?

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. AH: I wish I had been at this panel. Your recounting of this paper and the conversation after compounds my regret. As for the topic of redeeming Taylorism, did Rosenthal or Lepore address the notion that efficiency also disciplines management? I ask because I suspect that we often read Taylorism acontextually. How? Well, if management was forced to become efficient, or think about efficiency (which usually involves the long and short term), that likely protected workers in a Gilded Age climate of excessive abuse (e.g. child labor, lack of psychological care for workers, care for rest, avoidance of down time due to worker injury). I suspect these were the topics covered by Rosenthal? To get at this aspect of the story, we’d have to see workers’ reactions (via interviews?) at workplaces subjected to Taylorism. How did they react to the changes? – TL

  2. [With fear of high-jacking the thread] Is the conclusion that online education is bad for students and professors foregone? It seems like it is still up for debate in places like _The Chronicle of Higher Education_. I know friends who have taught them have found some problems, but were also surprised by the quality of discussion and analysis.

  3. Tim: Good points. I think “efficiency” was little more than a Progressive Era buzzword that acted like a vacuum, to be filled by all sorts of different content. To me, the historical importance of Taylorism-style efficiency will always be about disciplining labor, about keeping and taking control over the workplace in the face of unionization efforts.

    Lauren: I am happy to have the thread high-jacked if you want to discuss on-line education. I am opposed to it. I suppose one could argue for its educational purposes. I tend to think face-to-face learning is something that we shouldn’t move away from. That it’s essential. Call me old fashioned. That’s not to say it can’t work as a supplement to existing courses–on-line discussion boards and what not. But it should never supplant traditional courses.

    But the larger issue for us is over protecting our labor power. If you want a tenure-track job in the future, hopefully near future, you should be against the virtual classroom, which requires far fewer teachers. This is why I consider on-line education a form of Taylorism.

  4. I guess I can imagine a more nuanced world of online education. My husband recently took a class through the mechanical engineering society and it required pretty much no instructor interaction. The material was created ahead of time and all the quizzes were online and multiple choice. Students could ask questions of the instructor, but I’m sure only a small percentage did. Now that kind of class, I agree, is utterly against my idea of education.

    But at the same time, the History Department at Michigan State has a lot of online courses in the summer and employs the same number of professors and teaching assistants as it does during the year. These are writing intensive courses, so the instructors cannot handle more students than they would have face to face. It does allow graduate students to be travelling to archives and earning a paycheck (though I never thought I could handle doing both at the same time).

    This second option has actually allowed many more graduate students to have a paycheck during the summer than was the case before online education (when only a small handful of students were given teaching assignments).

    I would never advocate moving all of education online, because I too believe in the importance of face to face interaction, but I don’t think its necessary to condemn online education in its entirety.

  5. Colleagues,

    If I may with my first post to this wonderful group: This is a poor question. Is the purpose to “redeem” Taylor and his system or Taylorism as part of an incredibly broad and dynamic system of capitalist production? I too missed this session, unfortunately, so take what I say with that in mind. But on its face, the first question is simplistic; the second is impossible for humanists.

    Bruce Nelson long ago “redeemed” Taylor on two grounds. First, Nelson took at face value Taylor’s assurances that he had the best interests of workers in mind. But Taylor’s notion of the workers’ best interests was purely based on his presumption that workers were primitive human beings interested only in making as much money as possible. Craftsmen who loved their work, by Taylor’s lights, were mere “rule-of-thumb” bumblers who wanted to “soldier,” or waste time in inefficient behavior. No one who reads that breathtaking rendition of Taylor’s dealing with “Schmidt,” the lively Dutchman at the Bethlehem works, could possibly take seriously Taylor’s self-justifying claims that he was a disinterested expert trying to protect both capital and labor from one another.

    Nelson’s other defense was that very few companies adopted Taylor’s system in its entirety. Talk about damning with faint praise. Taylor is redeemed because he was nowhere near so influential has he expected to be, or as historians have claimed.

    But this, of course, does nothing to redeem Taylorism as an episode in the long capitalist expropriation of work. Nelson was right in a way: Taylor merely put a Progressive Era veneer on the process of alienating labor that ran back to the origins of capitalism and continues to this day.

    Look, for example, at Frederick Law Olmsted’s stunning description of pork packing in Cincinnati in the 1830s (Travels Through Texas). Watching what might have been the earliest assembly line, watching as the pig was dissembled by men acting as a “human chopping machine,” on whom “no iron cogged wheels” could improve, Olmsted’s natural impulse was to take out his watch and time the movements of the cleavers as they went “chop, chop, chop.”

    Maybe it’s a defense of Taylor that he wasn’t the least original. But where does that get us?

    What we properly think of as Taylorism is a period in the historic transformation of work from a self-controlled craft to a completely alienated activity. There is a direct lineage from Porkopolis to Taylor to Brook Park (the Ford plant that first installed “automated” transfer machinery).

    Any consideration of distance education that does not account for the process, which can only lead to the conclusion that it represents the alienation of intellectual labor, strikes me as very naive.

  6. David–Thanks very much for your first post to our blog, and for your kind words about it.

    I admit to being intentionally provocative, or rather, to offering up a straw man, in framing my post around Taylor or Taylorism being redeemable or not. I guess this is because I was sincerely taken aback that this was the gist of the paper given. It was a well constructed paper, but counterintuitive.

    So, it seems we agree that Taylorism, as it represents a shift in the organization of labor insofar as workers had far less control over their labor, was not a kind development. And we agree that educational Taylorism would likewise be alienating. That was the main point I was trying to make. It’s one thing to argue for “efficiency” in the context of late-19th century workers, removed as we are from them in time and moral distance. It’s quite another to apply that same logic to our own labor as academics. It’s not so nice in that context. Cheers.

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