Monday, November 08, 2004

Reading :: The New Ruthless Economy

Originally posted: Mon, 08 Nov 2004 08:15:26

The New Ruthless Economy: Work and Power in the Digital Age

by Simon Head

I share an interest in work and economy with my colleague Mark Longaker, though his is based on some genuine research while mine is a tyro's interest. So when Mark recommended Simon Head's The New Ruthless Economy to me, I jumped at the chance to read it. The book tries to come to grips with the issue of the "new economy," the tech-supported service sector, just as Zuboff and Maxmin's book The Support Economy does (see my recent review). But whereas Zuboff and Maxmin believe that capitalism will evolve into a newer, kinder, gentler form, Head argues that the new economy looks a lot like the old one: Taylorism has taken new, more pervasive forms. "Ford and Taylor were mostly intent on controlling the bodily movements of workers tied to machine shops and assembly lines," Head tells us. "But today's scientific managers are trying also to control the minds of their white-collar employees" (p.109).

Head gives us many examples of this new Taylorism. Like Zuboff in her classic The Age of the Smart Machine and later in The Support Economy, and like Harry Braverman in Labor and Monopoly Capital, he traces the recent history of labor from Francis Taylor's early books to the present. He makes much of the punishing environment of call centers (see also Michael Muller's work at US West). And he recounts some really horrifying anecdotes about these working conditions and how they have resulted in considerable hardship to the workers. In one of the later chapters, he demonstrates how scientific management has negatively affected health care through the rise of HMOs. Near the end, he argues (unpersuasively to my mind) that "the Democratic party ... is still the political force best placed" to deal with the problem (p.179).

I think that Head makes quite a few good points in the book, although I confess my reaction to it was similar to my reaction to Fast Food Nation. Sure, it persuasively links many current corporate practices to Taylorism, and I'm sure they are direct descendants or at least strongly related. (See Muller's work at US West, again, in which he proffers the CARD technique as an alternative to the time-and-motion study methodology called GOMS.) But I think that Head never really comes to grips with the problems that have sustained the various permutations of scientific management, and therefore his solutions are vague, tentative, and/or unworkable.

The problems include, first and foremost, the rapid upscaling of industries, particularly in the service sector. "Informating," as Zuboff calls it, means that workers have to learn and become comfortable with a much greater number of genres than ever before, and furthermore that more workers have to be literate in the first place. And as I've argued elsewhere, the officially sanctioned genres are not adequate for supporting workers' flexibility; workers typically adapt or invent their own idiosyncratic genres to provide this flexibility, and that means an even greater proliferation of genres. Finally, as Zuboff and Maxmin argue, workers are expected to make more lateral connections with workers in other organizations, meaning that genres developed in one company migrate quickly to others. The result is an increasingly complex landscape of information for workers to navigate; Johndan Johnson-Eilola uses the term "datacloud." The problem that organizations face, then, is how to stabilize this ever-changing landscape enough to keep the organization relatively coherent. Scientific management is not a particularly good solution to this problem -- besides the ethical difficulties, it tends to be inflexible and unrealistic -- but it thrives exactly because it appears to provide control and unity in an increasingly uncontrolled, discontinuous environment. Suggesting to the harried, worried CEO of a large organization that workers need to be given more control, without providing some sort of assurance that the organization will remain stable, as Head does, seems fruitless.

Add to that the fact that workers are availing themselves of greater job mobility, which means that they spend less time learning the craftwork that Head seems to think is the antidote to scientific management. You can blame earlier scientific management for this fact -- due to deskilling -- but also blame the increasing physical mobility that the automobile has brought us, something that has unmoored workers from particular regions and neighborhoods and made it less likely for them to try to "work it out" with a single employer or seek lifetime employment. Remember that even if these problems can be laid at the feet of scientific management, they're our problems now and we have to make a genuine attempt at solving them.

I don't have the answer to this problem. But I can tell when someone else doesn't have the answer either.

Blogged with Flock

No comments: