One of my favorite sessions from the second USIH conference was one put together by our own Mike O’Connor. The panel was cleverly titled, “To Market, To Market: American Thinkers Confront Twentieth-Century Capitalism,” and was chaired by Jennifer Burns of recent Daily Show fame. Burns is the author of a new biography of Ayn Rand.
All of the papers were excellent. O’Connor convincingly argued that Henry Wallace gave full intellectual expression to the New Deal in his book, Sixty Million Jobs. But the bulk of the post-presentation conversation was spent on Caitlin Rosenthal’s paper, “Frederick W. Taylor: The Optimistic Science of Scientific Management.” Rosenthal contended that Taylor is misremembered as anti-worker, partly the result of decades of labor historiography, which paints Taylor, through a moral lens, as a tool of the corporate managers seeking to discipline an increasingly unruly industrial workforce. Rosenthal conducted a close reading of “Scientific Management,” replete with rhetoric friendly to the cause of the laboring class, to recuperate Taylor. She was somewhat convincing in this, but I took issue during the Q&A session with her conclusion, where she stated that there are plenty of examples in history that point towards capital-labor cooperation. She implied that efficiency is good for everyone, the further implication of which seemed to be that in addition to Taylor, Taylorism is worthy of redemption.
I’m all for overturning conventional wisdom. But in this case, the wisdom of the labor historians, and other assorted left-leaning intellectuals–such as Jill Lepore, who recently wrote an entertaining New Yorker article on Taylor--might be conventional, but it’s still wisdom. Taylorism is not just about efficiency. It’s about disciplining a workforce. Perhaps if we think about Taylorism in terms more understandable to our everyday experiences, such as Taylorism in the academy, it would be less redeemable. Sure, shifting the bulk of teaching to on-line courses is more efficient in terms of cost. But it’s bad for the academic workforce… not to mention for education. IS Taylorism redeemable?