We’ve been talking over the past few weeks about how the factory system was born on the sugar plantations of the West Indies, and how that system was gradually imported back into Europe, becoming the basis for the industrial revolution.
The dramatic glut of raw materials flooding into Europe called forth means of mechanization and intensification of production that were simply not called for before. This was accompanied by a population explosion, and a vast increase in the money supply—first through silver and then through paper.
While the Caribbean plantations depended on slavery, this was not viable in Europe. Instead wage labor increasingly became the norm, eroding the independence and moral economy of the yeoman peasantry. The landed aristocracy became displaced by an ascending aristocracy of industrialists and financiers. Noblesse oblige was supplanted by maximizing profit.
Because of the nature of factory production, economic activity became much more concentrated in urban areas than it had been before. This caused a vast flood of people into industrial cities, which led to the characteristics we mistakenly attribute to ALL historical urban areas: overcrowding, pollution, filth, disease, social maladies, etc. Certain industrial cities in Western Europe became super-sized almost overnight.
I’d like to conclude by noting that this method of working has never gone away. All of the subsequent reorganization of labor was based on the labor intensification methods originally developed under slavery, which were then directly to applied factory production.
That’s right, the methods we all labor under today were originally all developed to organize and manage slaves.
In essence, we are still industrial workers today. Now, you may say, ‘Hold on, that’s not right! I’m not an industrial worker; I work in IT, or healthcare, or finance, or construction, or whatever…’ But it doesn’t matter what industry you ostensibly work in, we are all laboring under the same industrial system developed on those plantations centuries ago.
The factory system is the basis for all modern work. Selling our precious time on earth in exchange for for money is the way all of us need to make a living nowadays (except the lucky few born rich, or who own sufficient income-generating assets).
So too, is submitting yourself to harsh worker “discipline.” Our bosses basically exert a level of control over us that even the most sociopathic dictators in history were never able to accomplish. We accept this state of affairs because, we are told, it is “only” within the confines of work life. We accept that “freedom” is only something to be experienced outside of the walls of the office park or cubicle. And because we are free to theoretically choose a new master at any time, we told that we have historically unprecedented “freedom.”
Yet that’s not even a fraction of the amount of freedom people enjoyed in ancient times. Everyone except slaves, that is.
That’s why it’s called wage slavery.
There were institutional barriers in the past to be sure—serfs, for example, couldn’t leave their place of residence. But there was no direct supervision of everything one did on a daily basis. There was no one looking over your shoulder. There was no one telling you to work harder, work faster, or else. There was no one telling you to not show up drunk or to pee in a cup. There was no one telling you when to go to the bathroom (something even slaves did not have to endure). That is only a modern phenomenon! Our ancestors experienced a level of freedom and autonomy that we can only dream of in our modern world.
And yet Capital-L Liberalism portrays itself as the epitome of freedom! What a fucking con!
And then that profound loss of freedom was covered up by retconning history.
In a post I wrote several years ago, Modern Work Patterns Make No Sense, I pointed out that keeping employees noses to the grindstone was necessitated by the introduction of machines in production: every minute those machines were not running was theoretically a loss of profit. That led to a time-centric, intensive work pattern that did not exist before. Prior to that, there was no such thing as a “weekend,” and many languages still do not have a word for it. I quoted historian Emma Griffin on the In Our Time podcast:
“…Traditionally people are paid for making things according to how much is made. So a shoemaker gets paid for his shoes when he’s made his shoes and is not really paid for his time—he’s paid for what he actually accomplishes. In the factories that logic doesn’t really work because the employers have spent money invested in very expensive machinery, and that means they’ve got to keep the machines running all through the week, as long as possible. So they’ve got to get workers to the factory early in the morning, they’ve got to get them working intensively throughout the day, staying until late into the evening. And that’s a very different kind of working pattern that’s being introduced. So instead of people dovetailing working at home with managing a cotton garden or something, now they’re going into the factories. And it’s the beginning of modern working patterns that we’re familiar with, where we’re effectively paid for our time rather than what we manage to get done.”
And this system persists today, despite us living in an age where machines make practically everything we need, and increasingly provide services as well (or allow us to provide our own services). I pointed out that we still stubbornly retain this archaic work pattern, despite it’s inefficiency, and despite the extreme stresses it places on individuals:
As Emma Griffin points out, those work patterns make sense when you work in a factory where every second the machine isn’t running it’s a loss of profit. This is also why agricultural societies have always been more leisurely than industrial ones—working harder won’t make the plants grow any faster, after all; once the land you’ve got is seeded and watered, it’s several months minimum before you harvest your crop with little to do but pull weeds and wait. By contrast, a machine never gets tired, and you will give out before it does, hence the Stakhanovite working hours of the early Industrial Revolution (only ameliorated by brutal strikes where workers often sacrificed their lives in a hail of government-sponsored gunfire).
But in case you haven’t noticed, not a lot of people are working in factories anymore. Yet, bizarrely, the entire structure of society is designed as if we do! We all get into our cars and head to work at the exact same time every day (causing epic traffic jams), and file home at the exact same time (causing yet another traffic jam). We all work Monday-Friday (with a few exceptions). During that time we’re chained to a desk for eight hours regardless of what we actually accomplish. It doesn’t matter if there’s four hours of work to do or forty – we’re parked there whether we like it or not. But there is no spinning machine, no power loom, no drill press, no drop forger. No machine at all except sometimes a computer which can go anywhere and work anytime
What’s more, the coercive aspect of work has never gone away. It’s just accepted as “normal” even though it’s historically novel. Of course, as social beings embedded in webs of relationships, it’s not like we ever had true absolute freedom (or would even want such a thing if we could have it). But being forced to have work extracted from you for hours upon hours a day, every single day, for our entire life with only a couple of days to ourselves—that was something new and unusual. Employers became a kind of “private government” that dictates every aspect of over a third of your waking life:
In “Private Government,” [Elizabeth] Anderson explores a striking American contradiction. On the one hand, we are a freedom-obsessed society, wary of government intrusion into our private lives; on the other, we allow ourselves to be tyrannized by our bosses, who enjoy broad powers of micromanagement and coercion. Anderson believes that many American workers are constrained by rules that would be “unconstitutional for democratic states to impose on citizens who are not convicts or in the military.” She estimates that more than half are “subject to dictatorship at work.” In “Private Government,” she asks whether this might be a failure of our political system—a betrayal of America’s democratic promise.
Are Bosses Dictators? (The New Yorker)
That similarity between the level of control employers have and the control governments have over convicts and prisoners is echoed by Lewis Mumford in describing the foundation of the factory system (see the previous post on “the minimum of life”):
The quintessence of this minimum of life was achieved in the prison. Indeed, one might without much exaggeration say that housing reform was preceded by prison reform, as John Howard preceded Shaftesbury; and the prisons embodied most of the negative improvements that were introduced for the benefit of free citizens of the non-criminal classes, in the factories and tenements. The factory maintained the coercion of the prison: the enforced silence, the repetitive routine, the lockstep, the constant surveillance of the foreman or jailer: often enough a formidable prison wall would be around the structure, too; and the new housing quarters, with their closely calculated number of cubic feet of air and square feet of window space, cut off from sight of grass and flowers by the dusty paved courts and the dustier streets, could not have been more adequately designed if the sole object of the building were punishment.
The speculative spread of the industrial town meant the growth and spread of a dreary prison environment. The reward an honest man got for a faithful day’s labor was not measurably different from that which a more erring member of society got as punishment: indeed, the “freedom” of the first was another name for anxiety and insecurity and fearful humiliation. A minimum of life: malnutrition at every level. Mumford; The Culture of Cities, pp. 179-180
You would think this idea would be obvious to everyone. We are bossed around and told what to do almost every moment of the day as a very basic condition of our existence! If you don’t like it, you can go starve or be homeless. And this is portrayed as “freedom.”
In America, this shift occurred somewhat later than in Europe. The transition occurred from 1890 to the 1920’s—only 100 short years ago; an eyeblink in historical time. The handicraft, artisan, and the agrarian household economy all perished and were by-and-large absorbed within large bureaucratic corporations. The traumatic effects are still being felt today. William Grieder describes the change in his mammoth history of the Federal Reserve, Secrets of the Temple:
By 1900, only four in ten American workers were still on farms. A few decades earlier, the figure had been eight in ten. The economic dimensions of America’s transition from an agricultural society to an industrial society, the rapid and dramatic shift of population from rural to urban, were well understood. The emotional transaction was not. It left a deep cultural imprint of contradictory memory and emotion, still visible in popular values, a painful nostalgia for something that was lost and also a sense of liberation from old burdens.
Everything changed, even the language. In the Populist era, when the grassroots speakers appealed to the “producing classes,” they were speaking of farmers and factory workers, individuals who made things with their own hands, the “bone and sinew of the nation” in Andrew Jackson’s rhetoric. In twentieth-century usage, “producers” were no longer people; the term now meant those anonymous corporate enterprises that controlled most output, distinguished from their employees, the “workers.” In 1900, a rural census taker in Pennsylvania innocently listed all of the farmers in his district as “unemployed,” since all of them worked for themselves, not for someone else. p. 287
With loss, however, there was also reward. Millions of American families willingly traded roles in life: they ceased to be the independent yeomanry of American tradition, self-reliant and proud and skillful in the practical arts of self-sufficiency. They became, instead, employees and consumers. They went to work for someone else, usually a corporation, and their labor produced wages—pieces of paper in place of the “real things” of country life. The energies of individual expression, once devoted to daily survival, were diverted instead to consuming—buying things and using them, things made by others in some distant place.
Both new roles—consumer and employee—made people more dependent on the abstractions of the money system than they had been as self-sufficient farmers, producing real goods. Money belonged to the city and its complexities. Country people, as they were drawn closer to the ancient mystery, were uncomfortable confronting money. Money was the everyday symbol of what they had given up. Grieder; Secrets of the Temple, p. 288
It’s no wonder than that right-wing authoritarian movements always invoke a “back to the land” ethos that portrays a nostalgic and idyllic version of rural life as the thing they hearken back to, and demonize cosmopolitan city-dwellers and their deviant lifestyles as the source of all the nation’s problems. From Maoism, to Hiter’s fascism, to modern European right-wing parties (Poland, Hungary) to Putinism, to Trumpism, it’s been a consistent feature since the rise of the factory system. So, too, is a deep distrust of money and finance (even when the authoritarian leaders themselves are in the metaphorical bed with the bankers and financiers).
The connection between industrial work and slavery was even more illuminated with the coming of the “scientific management” techniques of industrial engineering, with its time and material studies. This article goes into great detail about how the methods of industrial engineering in the twentieth century came directly out of the supervision of slaves in the American South. They were then applied to nominally “free” industrial workers in the industrial North.
In a sense, scientific management replicated slavery’s extractive techniques while jettisoning the institution itself…Writing in 1918, historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips acknowledged the parallels between scientific management and slavery. As Daniel Joseph Singal notes, when Phillips described the sophistication of southern management strategies, he liked to reference a series of articles in the Southern Planter by H. W. Vick, whose “analysis of stance and movement” resembled some of the most advanced industrial studies of his own time.
Perhaps Phillips’s own rosy views of slavery enabled him to see these connections. One of the most influential historians of slavery, his work was infused with racial bias. He famously characterized slavery as a kind of “school” for the enslaved, and his descriptions of the interactions between planters and their slaves bear striking similarities to the ways Taylor described the ideal interactions between managers and workers.
In 1911, during the many months of congressional hearings on scientific management, Taylor attempted to distance his system from that of slavery by describing it as a school for workers who did not know how to work: this “is not nigger driving; this is kindness; this is teaching; this is doing what I would like mighty well to have done to me if I were a boy trying to learn how to do something. This is not a case of cracking a whip over a man and saying, ‘Damn you, get there.’”
How Slavery Inspired Modern Business Management (Boston Review)
This brutality is still observed daily in the warehouses of Amazon, where the taskmaster is often an algorithm, even more inhuman and impersonal than a slave driver, and not subject to pity.
And this article from the New York Times makes the case that the unique brutality and sociopathy of the American style of Capitalism comes directly out of the slavery system used on the plantations of Dixie. The techniques of the plantation economy—particularly the techniques to squeeze the maximum amount of labor out of one’s employees—were applied directly to Northern industrial workers. These techniques then inserted themselves into industrial capitalism more broadly (e.g. office work), which lead to the particularly vicious exploitation and lack of worker rights seen in modern-day America’s brutal version of winner-take-all capitalism (ironically justified in the name of “freedom”):
Perhaps you’re reading this at work, maybe at a multinational corporation that runs like a soft-purring engine. You report to someone, and someone reports to you. Everything is tracked, recorded and analyzed, via vertical reporting systems, double-entry record-keeping and precise quantification. Data seems to hold sway over every operation. It feels like a cutting-edge approach to management, but many of these techniques that we now take for granted were developed by and for large plantations.
When an accountant depreciates an asset to save on taxes or when a midlevel manager spends an afternoon filling in rows and columns on an Excel spreadsheet, they are repeating business procedures whose roots twist back to slave-labor camps. And yet, despite this, “slavery plays almost no role in histories of management,” notes the historian Caitlin Rosenthal in her book “Accounting for Slavery.” Since the 1977 publication of Alfred Chandler’s classic study, “The Visible Hand,” historians have tended to connect the development of modern business practices to the 19th-century railroad industry, viewing plantation slavery as precapitalistic, even primitive. It’s a more comforting origin story, one that protects the idea that America’s economic ascendancy developed not because of, but in spite of, millions of black people toiling on plantations. But management techniques used by 19th-century corporations were implemented during the previous century by plantation owners.
Planters aggressively expanded their operations to capitalize on economies of scale inherent to cotton growing, buying more enslaved workers, investing in large gins and presses and experimenting with different seed varieties. To do so, they developed complicated workplace hierarchies that combined a central office, made up of owners and lawyers in charge of capital allocation and long-term strategy, with several divisional units, responsible for different operations. Rosenthal writes of one plantation where the owner supervised a top lawyer, who supervised another lawyer, who supervised an overseer, who supervised three bookkeepers, who supervised 16 enslaved head drivers and specialists (like bricklayers), who supervised hundreds of enslaved workers. Everyone was accountable to someone else, and plantations pumped out not just cotton bales but volumes of data about how each bale was produced. This organizational form was very advanced for its time, displaying a level of hierarchal complexity equaled only by large government structures, like that of the British Royal Navy.
Like today’s titans of industry, planters understood that their profits climbed when they extracted maximum effort out of each worker. So they paid close attention to inputs and outputs by developing precise systems of record-keeping. Meticulous bookkeepers and overseers were just as important to the productivity of a slave-labor camp as field hands. Plantation entrepreneurs developed spreadsheets, like Thomas Affleck’s “Plantation Record and Account Book,” which ran into eight editions circulated until the Civil War. Affleck’s book was a one-stop-shop accounting manual, complete with rows and columns that tracked per-worker productivity. This book “was really at the cutting edge of the informational technologies available to businesses during this period,” Rosenthal told me. “I have never found anything remotely as complex as Affleck’s book for free labor.” Enslavers used the book to determine end-of-the-year balances, tallying expenses and revenues and noting the causes of their biggest gains and losses. They quantified capital costs on their land, tools and enslaved workforces, applying Affleck’s recommended interest rate. Perhaps most remarkable, they also developed ways to calculate depreciation, a breakthrough in modern management procedures, by assessing the market value of enslaved workers over their life spans. Values generally peaked between the prime ages of 20 and 40 but were individually adjusted up or down based on sex, strength and temperament: people reduced to data points…
The uncompromising pursuit of measurement and scientific accounting displayed in slave plantations predates industrialism. Northern factories would not begin adopting these techniques until decades after the Emancipation Proclamation. As the large slave-labor camps grew increasingly efficient, enslaved black people became America’s first modern workers, their productivity increasing at an astonishing pace. During the 60 years leading up to the Civil War, the daily amount of cotton picked per enslaved worker increased 2.3 percent a year. That means that in 1862, the average enslaved fieldworker picked not 25 percent or 50 percent as much but 400 percent as much cotton than his or her counterpart did in 1801.
Today, we’ve completely capitulated to this system; unable to imagine anything beyond it. But it might be helpful to know where and when it started, and how it became the norm we all live under. It might also help to remember that there was once a time when we didn’t all live this way, and that was for most of human history.