[OPE-L:2912] Re: Taylorism and scientific management

Gil Skillman (gskillman@wesleyan.edu)
Wed, 28 Aug 1996 11:46:06 -0700 (PDT)

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In response to the following, Jerry writes:

>> There is a much more direct explanation for why
>> Taylorism failed: it didn't work, and agency theory provides a direct
>> explanation why: if workers have superior information about how production
>> actually works, they can easily circumvent attempts to force them to reveal
>> this information (especially once they learn from the infamous Schmidt's
>> negative example). And workers *did* circumvent Taylorist interventions:
>> they did slowdowns, they broke machines, they created costly political and
>> industrial unrest, etc.
>First: I'm not sure what you mean by the Schmidt's "infamous" negative
> example. Please explain.

Schmidt was the subject of one of Taylor's "success stories", a worker from
whom Taylor had (supposedly) succeeded in extracting much more work at
slightly higher pay. Most of what is infamous about this story is Taylor's
representation of Schmidt as a dumb ox, and the incredible, backbreaking
pace that Taylor apparently took as a norm.

>Second: I don't understand your statement that Taylorism failed [capital].
> Taylorism is still very much in force today in many areas branches
> of production.

See below for an integrated response to questions 2-4. For an account of
the failure of Taylorism, taken by itself, see Richard Edwards, Contested
Terrain, pp. 97-104

>Third: While I am very familiar with different ways to slow-up, etc.
> (having worked on an auto assembly line for 5 years), I don't see
> this as evidence that capitalists have given up on Taylorism
> (ask any autoworker: the auto corporations haven't given up yet).

(see below)

>> This is why Taylorism was supplanted by so-called scientific management and
>> other technologically and bureaucratically oriented forms of labor
>Now, you really have me confused. F.W. Taylor was the _founder_ of
>"scientific management." A popular summary of his perspectives is entitled
>_The Principles of Scientific Management_ (published first in 1911). You
>must understand the two expressions (Taylorism and scientific management)
>as distinct. How so?

You're right, Jerry, I'm using terms loosely and inappropriately. Let me be
a bit more careful about the distinction I'm getting at: "scientific
management" as Taylor understood and practiced the term took the underlying
technical details of the production process as given, using as its principal
tools incentive schemes (such as "scientifically" constructed piece rate
systems, oversight, and time-and-motion studies). Thus, Taylorism or
Taylorist scientific management is simply the logic of *formal* subsumption
taken to its strategic limits. When I say that it failed, I mean that it
failed on its own terms: Taylorist practices *by themselves*, without
supplemental technological controls, failed in general to eliminate
"systematic soldiering" and thus to render such technical forms of control
unnecessary. The reason is that once workers caught on to the strategic
logic of Taylorist interventions, they tailored (heh heh) their strategic
response accordingly, and fought off attempts to increase work speed in the
ways I indicated earlier. Naturally this success varies from setting to
setting, but as a general rule Taylorism did not eliminate the "problem of

I should have called what superceded Taylorism "technical control" (a la
Edwards) or "the scientific-technical revolution in management" (a la
Braverman) or "Fordism" (a la the regulation school); this approach
supplemented simple Taylorism with the *strategic* use of technology to
increase and systematize the appropriation of surplus labor, and thus
represents a particular (strategic) form of *real* subsumption of labor
under capital.

Thus the distinction I was getting at corresponds to the difference between
the formal and real subsumption of labor under capital, understood in their
*stategic* aspects.

In solidarity, Gil