Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Taylorism and Ehrenreich

Note: Taylorism stems from a “scientific management” expert, Frederick Taylor, who most eloquently formulated the modern system of automation and management most exemplified in the fast food restaurant: deskilled workers, simplified tasks, etc. This is an essay discussing Taylor, Adam Smith and Barbara Ehrenreich.

It should be noted, firstly, that there is a myth that Taylorism is about efficiency. This claim seems to be squarely at odds with the fact that Taylorist mechanisms and mechanization are undertaken even when this actually reduces profits, and the note that increasing worker's participation even nominally actually raises productivity. The contradiction is resolved when we remember “efficiency” means efficiency at preserving the interests of the managers, or the masters: Not only profit, but the conditions that stratify power and social mobility to allow them to retain that profit. As Paul Street put it in his article “The Corporation and Frankenstein”, the corporation is the market's Frankenstein's monster: a creature made by it to master itself but that ends up undermining its very logic. Nonetheless, the general rift between Smith, who as a pre-capitalist respected the artisan and the free man, and Taylor, who as a capitalist wished to sacrifice everything for the power and profits of the rich, remains. It is quite clear that the modern era is a Taylorist and not a Smithian one. As Ehrenreich makes clear on p. 210, “...if low-wage workers do not behave in an economically rational way [noting that employers believe they do not], that is, as free agents within a capitalist democracy, it is because they dwell in a place that is neither free nor in way democratic.” This disdain for workers' ability to be productive and for freedom held by the employers is noted quite clearly by the phenomenon Ehrenreich notes in the Evaluation, one that even conservative economists have commented upon: the stagnation or actual decline in real terms of wages concurrent with quite expanisve increases in productivity: clearly the upper class views the working class as replaceable. One could note, given the Evaluation (particularly pp. 216-217), that for the rich and powerful employers to have any opinion about the poor, they must actually know them, and given the sharp stratification of modern society, that isn't likely. This allows employers to view their workers as stupid and incompetent, rather than blaming institutional mechanisms that propel poor results.

The human consequences of the Taylorist view are quite obvious. If those who control the means of labor construct labor in such a manner as to reduce the skills and intelligence utilized when working, the labor process will become increasingly stupefying to the mass of workers. Even if other inequities of power and wealth are resolved, this is the seed for new inequity, as those with more empowering and intellectually maximizing jobs will inherently gain decision-making advantages, connections and privileges. Note that this has nothing to do with the intents of the bosses: Though Ehrenreich describes many insensitive and even cruel bosses, even kind ones will be forced to do what they must by the exigencies of the market or be forced out. Further, such continued deskilling of workers will raise inequity by lowering wages, which (as Dani Rodrik has noted) lowers growth, and reduce worker participation and usage of intellectual ability, which means those in the best position to evaluate the success of certain policies on the ground will be precisely the people least skilled to do so. However, the Smith view is not adequate. Even a market system that enshrines artisans and skills will never allow the full political and economic participation in decision-making of all parties: even capitalists admit that “externalities” are rife in market systems, forcing costs onto those not party to the direct consumer-producer transaction.


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