The political economy of the body

1. Efficiency at work

The innovation with which Taylor is most associated is the linking of efficiency to power through the medium of the human body. At the core of the new meta-routines that systematic or scientific management ushered in was the efficient use of the human body. The program sought to drill efficiency into the nature of being, start- ing with the individual body (anatomical politics), moving to the collective body of/in the organization (bio-politics), and generally percolating into the societal body by economizing society (social politics), all in the name of efficiency.

Efficiency, as an engineering term, means getting the most for the least, ‘the biggest bang for the smallest buck’, as it is often put colloquially. Efficiency means achieving desired effects or results with minimum waste of time and effort, through minimizing the ratio of effective or useful output to the total input in any system. It was Taylor’s practical experience, rather than theoretical knowledge gained from engineering, that enabled him to begin the enquiries for which he became famous. These started with a practical problem of how workmen might best use lathes to cut metal when they were powered by the new invention of electricity. As Jacques (1996: 105–6) notes, Taylor’s innovations with the lathe were a result of applying mathematics, creating quantitative tables, and using slide rules to shape new practices.

The central focus of Taylor’s system was the body of the individual laborer and its relation not only to other bodies but also to the material artifacts that formed the laborer’s immediate work environment. What Taylor produced may be charac- terized as a political economy of the body.16 As such, Taylor was the symbolic icon and the visible point of an epoch and a mentality. In this way, the overall contri- bution was made by a broad movement in which several individuals made an important contribution to building this management of bodies (Taylor, of course, but also the Gilbreths, Münsterberg, Gantt, and others who responded to the struc- tural conditions provided by the new factory system powered by electricity, by producing new mechanisms for managing bodies in the factory and beyond: see Nelson 1975; Watts 1991).

Canguilhem (1992: 63) points out that Taylorism established a mode of work premised on the subjection of the worker’s body not only to the superior intelligence of the manager’s mind, but also to industrial machinery. The human body was mea- sured as if it functioned like a machine. For the former, Taylorism represented a work- ing out of Cartesian dualism – the split between mind and body – as a social relation, as Braverman (1974) was to argue. But it is how this was done that interests us, as it was through new disciplines focused on the individual human body that Taylor’s (1911) practice sought to produce its effects. The new disciplines, the subjection of the body to new rigors, were clearly justified by productive economic practices. Foucault defined a discipline as a ‘unitary technique by which the body is reduced as a “politi- cal” force at the least cost and maximized as a useful force’ (1977: 221). It was in this context that Foucault introduced the idea of anatomical politics, related to the disci- plinary regime of the individual body. It was in this sphere that Taylor’s major contri- butions were made. Taylor was the founder of the discipline dealing with the design of machines and equipment for human use, and the determination of the appropriate human behaviors for the efficient operation of the machines, which has subsequently and variously been called human factors, human engineering, and ergonomics. (The last of these could, in fact, be seen as an example of what Foucault 1977 refers to as ‘bio-power’ – the government of the social body – while Taylor was more concerned with the management of individual actions than with the use of knowledge and cate- gorizations to manage populations.) Discipline targeted the human body, with the goal of simultaneously exploiting it and rendering it docile and cooperative. For instance, in his experiments with shovels at Bethlehem Steel, Taylor focused on the body of the men; he told a worker that the most efficient method of shoveling was to put the right arm down by the right hip, hold the shovel on the left leg, and throw the weight of the body forward when digging the shovel into a pile, instead of using the arms and just pushing the shovel into a pile.

From Taylor’s point of view, the working body should be maximally productive and minimally fatigued to become more efficient, a frame which very much defined the legacy that he bequeathed to important followers such as the Gilbreths, who developed his practice to innovative heights through the use of time-lapsed photography, in a form of industrial futurism (Mandel 1989). Although often critiqued it is possible to provide a humanist gloss on Taylor as a reformer who aimed to eliminate inefficient and excessively debilitating practices in industry, by laying the foundations for a sophisticated disciplinary apparatus for productive technological bodies (see, for example, Amar 1920). In short, we might say that Taylor produces a political economy of technologies for the body. The political aspect is the deliberate, reformist intervention into the body politic of the factory or steel works; the economic aspect is the achievement of efficiency as an overar- ching aim; while the reference to technologies applies to a whole new system of notation, measurement and representation of the body.

Figure 2.1 The dynamics of Taylor’s programmatics of power – and resistance

What Taylor did was to routinize power. Management intervention, in terms of an explicit exercise of power, was designed to handle situations where routines were not working.17 Management knowledge was designed to order and control what was known, protecting and insuring it against the uncertainty of the unknown, to the greatest extent possible (Yates 1989; Brown and Duguid 2000). The less that management had to exercise power, the better power was embedded in the rou- tines. We can diagrammatically represent Taylor’s analytics as in Figure 2.1.

Taylor’s whole program began from his observation of systematic resistance on the shop floor, in the form of soldiering and like practices.18 His response to such system- atic resistance was the famous systematic of scientific management. It was this that was his design to overcome resistance. Once resistance was overcome, then efficiencies would be enhanced. But of course, enhanced organizational efficiency would in turn lead to a greater application of power as management systematically developed fur- ther ways of making employees do what they would not otherwise have done, which, in turn, would ratchet up resistance as new impositions were experienced.

2. Representing power and the body

At the end of the nineteenth century the conditions of possibility for building new practices and knowledge with which to discipline bodies had produced, as we have seen, a new economy of the body. Now, while this was newly applied to factory work, it was not a new occurrence. Foucault (1977: 28) discussed the development of a political anatomy where ‘power seeps into the very grain of individuals, reaches right into their bodies, permeates their gestures, their posture, what they say, how they learn to live and work with other people’, in relation to earlier forms of drill observed in the bodies of marching soldiers and the posture of schoolchildren. With Taylor, their non-institutionalized parents, if they worked in the factory, could also be reformed through an inspectorial urge.

The most important of these new graphic technologies were developed to record previously unrecorded physical processes like heart rate, muscular contraction, and, most importantly, movement. Some of Taylor’s associates took his interest in body measurement to great extremes. One of these was a fellow engineer, Frank Gilbreth, who became a lecturer at Purdue University. From 1911, after the publication of Taylor’s Principles of scientific management, he left his construction business to devote himself entirely to scientific management, to which he made a number of important contributions. Gilbreth’s (1972) technique of micro-motion study permitted calcu- lation of a standard from a description of the process constructed at the level of a movement of a single body part – a finger or a hand. Taylor never became as detailed in his study of the body as did these subsequent motion experts, for example, Gilbreth and Gilbreth (1916) and Price (1992), who were associates of Taylor but also competitors, fighting over the paternity of time and motion studies.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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