Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Human Resources: The cult of management and why fixing the economy is not enough.

From a Privates Committee during the elections for delegates to the Pennsylvania State Constitutional Convention, quoted in A People's History of The United States (by Howard Zinn):

"An enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights, and destructive of the common happiness, of mankind; and therefore every free state hath a right by its laws to discourage the possession of such property."

Clearly, not all of revolutionary America was so unflinchingly capitalist as modern conservative authors would like us to believe. One can witness impulses toward socialism not only in the quote above, but also in the writings of Thomas Paine and in the class warfare of pre-revolutionary Boston. For the latter, Founding Father James Otis in 1762:

"I am forced to get my living by the labour of my hand; and the sweat of my brow, as most of you are and obliged to go thro' good report and evil report, for bitter bread, earned under the frowns of some who have no natural or divine right to be above me, and entirely owe their grandeur and honor to grinding the faces of the poor.. .."

Otis, of course, was defending the rights of the young professional and entrepreneurial class against the entrenched power of landed gentry. His words could serve equally as well today, however, as the indictment of that very professional class by the working class. Class prejudice and class struggle have changed very little since 1762 or 1776 even as many other facts of everyday life have become entirely different. The elite of the professional class look down on the middle and lower echelons of their own profession with the same frosty superiority in Scrooge's eyes when he looked down on Bob Cratchit. That hasn't changed since Dickens' time, even though Bob Cratchit V is better paid these days and Ebenezer Scrooge IV probably gives more money to charity. Yet even Bob is able to look down on the old lady who fries his morning breakfast or the kid taking his money at the register.

One of the most fundamental and least attractive facets of human nature is the need to look down on someone else as inferior in order to feel that we ourselves are superior. This hasn't changed as society has grown more technically advanced, it's merely taken new and stranger forms. Yet it also takes forms that would be very recognizable to the Pennsylvania Privates Committee of 1776, not new or strange at all.

One of those that I am most certain would be quickly understood is the concept of 'human resources.' This is the practice of treating those who work for a company as corporate assets rather than as individual human beings. This concept was pioneered during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, as the first great American corporate powers were expanding too fast and too greatly for the classic negotiation between entrepreneur and employee. They turned to the ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the pioneer of 'managed efficiency' and the inventor of the modern concept of 'scientific management.'

Taylor was not a sociologist but an engineer, and his approach to business was that of an engineer to a machine. Believing that there was 'one best way' to do everything and certain that all one had to do was find that way and then systematize it, Taylor developed four rules from which to run his system. For the purposes of our discussion, the fourth rule is the most important.

4. Divide work nearly equally between managers and workers, so that the managers apply scientific management principles to planning the work and the workers actually perform the tasks.

This was the birth of our modern concept of management and the beginning of the development of the modern concept of human resources as well. Since management was a science, the manager had to be right in their projections and any failure to meet those projections was obviously the fault of the workers. Where supervisors and managers had previously been drawn from the ranks of skilled workers who were promoted for their skills, everything changed. Now it was the understanding of the principles of scientific management that mattered and the manager only needed a broad understanding of the work to be done and not a detailed knowledge of the work itself. Since management was a science, the manager had to be right in their projections and any failure to meet those projections was obviously the fault of the workers.

This was not, strictly, Taylor's intent. It must be noted that his (utopian and probably unrealistic) goal was a partnership between management and labor designed to improve working conditions as much as productivity. The problem was human nature. The human need to feel superior, thus to see others as inferior, is just too powerful to be ignored. When one is responsible for planning and supervising and someone else is responsible for actually doing the work then one is going to feel important and powerful. One will then seek to exercise that power in a myriad collection of petty tyrannies in order to feed that feeling. A modern sociologist would have pointed this out to Taylor immediately, but the social sciences were still in their infancy in Taylor's day.

The results of the application of scientific management is that there are two separate professional classes today. The productive professional class (lawyers, doctors, accountants, salesmen, architects, designers, etc) who actually do something and the managerial class who take credit for a job when it is done. Whereas managers were once intimately acquainted with every aspect of the work being done because of their personal experience in the field, they are increasingly specialists in management without a detailed understanding of the actual work. This means that they are not necessarily truly qualified for their positions, they are simply applying formulae they are taught to believe work. 'Scientific management' has become religious management.

In many ways, it is a cult. Its members are indoctrinated with revealed truth and then warned of the risks of deviating from that truth. When facts or reality collide with the 'truth' they have been taught, their faith denies the real in favor of the 'true.'

Which brings us back to the issue of 'human resources.' Systems do not deal with people, they deal with components. Workers (and even many professionals) become parts in the corporate machine. Managers are charged with operating that machinery. Like many specialized technicians, they are so confident in their own ability that any failure is the fault of inferior tools. Therefore, a suspecialty of technicians is created to put the components of the machine together and make sure that they are functioning properly. The very nature of their job requires a combination of detatchment and understanding that is very nearly impossible to balance. Since it is easier to do the job by being too detatched than by being too understanding, the imbalance rarely works in the favor of the employees of a company.

This is so alien to the spirt of Enlightenment that you may ask why I believe the Pennsylvania Privates Committee of 1776 would recognize such a thing. Well, it was quite common in 17th and 18th century America. It simply was called by a different name.

Perhaps you think that, by comparing the modern attitude of corporate management to corporate employees to slavery, I am being so sensationalistic that this piece is unworthy of being taken seriously at all. Certainly today's workers are enjoying conditions far better than the slaves of antebellum America. Perhaps you believe that the contractual agreement between employer and employee gives employers the right to ask certain sacrifices from employees. I would not totally disagree with that.

The problem is that one cannot have a valid contract with a machine component. One cannot systematize contracts so that everyone is treated precisely the same according to a strict pattern; that is antithetical to the very concept of negotiation and of the contractual relationship. Nor can a one-sided agreement that places the employee at the employer's absolute whim until they choose to quit but offers no restriction on those whims be truly called a 'contract.' This is particularly true if one party can void the contract 'at will' but the other can only do so without penalty when specific conditions are met.

When employees are 'resources' and not human beings, then employers feel the entitlement of ownership. While there are practical questions that certainly make some infringement on the personal sphere of employees necessary, while they are working, there is also a moral line to be drawn between the genuine interests of the business and the infringement of basic human dignity for the bottom line.

As long as this does not change, then it really does not make a huge difference whether we are in recession or enjoying tremendous economic growth. Some people will enjoy vastly more of the American freedoms we take for granted than others. Those people will bear the bulk of the responsibility for the mistakes and failures of American society while the cogs in the machines they operate will bear the bulk of the burden of the consequences of those failures.

The people most responsible for economic downturn will bear the least risk of it actually harming them. As our own recent economic experience has shown.


Sheria said...

A fascinating discussion! So much of our governmental structure evolved out of a focus on protecting property rights. I think the core of capitalism is owership of property and acquisition of capital. Regarding human beings as resources, that is as property, best suits the needs of capitalism. Perhaps I over simplify, but I think that capitalism depends on having a broad base of human resourcesin order to support the few who hold the majority of the economic resources The masses that comprise the base remain passive because the myth that is sold is that if you work within the system, you too, may climb to the top of the capitalism heap. I think that this illness is entrenched in our economic structure and I concur in your assessment that fixing the economy is not enough.

Chris Richards said...

The core of liberal democracy as it currently exists is the protection of property rights. Even the 'Eurocommunism' of the 1980s has not eroded that in even the most 'socialist' European countries. While their conservatives are not going to overturn decades of government policy, neoconservatives (or 'neo-liberals' as they call themselves in Europe) have been on the political raise for some time.

The idea that corporations should be allowed to do as they please in the interest of the economy is a growing and dangerous notion. People ignore the warning signs and even self-described socialists sometimes shrug off the full implications of the power corporations wield over their employees.