Fordism And Taylorism Were Specifically Modern Modes

Of Organising Labour. Discuss With Reference To Gramsci. Essay, Research Paper




Fordism and Taylorism were specifically modern modes of organising labour. Discuss with reference to Gramsci.

To begin to comprehend this statement it is first necessary to understand what is meant by ?modern’. For Marshall Berman, Marx gives the “definitive vision of the modern environment” (Berman, 1982, 21) in the Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and with them the relations of production, and with them all the relations of society…. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. (Marx in Berman, 1982, 21)

The statement claims that Fordism and Taylorism were specifically modern modes of organising labour which immediately suggests that this is all they were. Putting this in the context of Marx’s statement would mean that the two ?isms’ only effected the relations of production while leaving both the instruments of production and social relations unaffected.

In this essay I will examine if Fordism and Taylorism were indeed modern modes of organising labour but more importantly whether, as Antonio Gramsci suggests, they had more striking and far reaching implications in modern social relations as well as in the changes and implementations of science.

Were all the principles found in Fordism and Taylorism first conceived of in the modern era? Some principles can, in fact, be seen in other instances throughout history. The Chinese philosopher Mencius (372-289BC) dealt with concept models and systems familiar now under the term of production management techniques. He indicated the advantages of the division of labour. Records indicate that the ancient Greeks understood the advantages of, and practised, uniform work methods. They employed work songs to develop a rhythm, in order to achieve a smooth, less fatiguing tempo, to improve productivity which we can compare to Taylor’s efficiency of motion principles which were used to the same effect.

The division of labour was recognized by Plato (427?347BC) well before Adam Smith. He wrote in The Republic, “A man whose work is confined to such limited task must necessarily excel at it”. In 1436 a Spanish visitor to the Arsenal of Venice reported witnessing a primitive assembly line, 500 years before Henry Ford. It should be remembered that these are isolated incidents which only show that the advantages of an efficient, well managed labour force were understood well before the advent of Fordism and Taylorism. It was not until Taylorism that scientific methodology was used to perfect these labour processes and not until Fordism that these principles were implemented on a large scale and for a sustained period of time.

Braverman explains how the use of experimental methods in the study of work did not begin with Taylor but with craftsmen who used such methods with their own crafts. However to compare the craftsmen’s methods to Taylor’s would be to miss the point. Taylorism was the study of work by, or on behalf of, those who manage the work rather than those who perform it and in this form the study of work has only come to the fore with the capitalist epoch.

I have referred on several occasions to Taylor’s principles and to his time and motion studies. I will now explain what these were and why they embody modernity, as well as analysing the more general principles of scientific management and Gramsci’s understanding of its implications.

Frederick Winslow Taylor was born in 1856 into a wealthy Philadelphian family and did something almost unthinkable for members of his social status, he went to work as a machinist and eventually as a foreman in factories owned by family friends. He immediately realised that the methods of work in the factories were highly inefficient.

Taylor’s problem with the labour processes in the factories had to do with the actual way worker performed their tasks; their movements and the amount of energy they expended. After becoming a foreman Taylor began using a stopwatch to measure tasks and to find ways of reducing the time in which they were performed as well as finding ways for workers to expend less energy by limiting their movements and making them move in particular ways. Techniques were discovered which shaved a significant amount of time and energy from the production process. One of the best ways of doing this, he discovered was by the division of labour. The advantages of this system of labour had already been pointed out by Adam Smith and Babbage. Instead of a single skilled labourer producing the whole product the division of labour meant the production process would be separated, by the management, into a series different tasks each one given to a separate worker. This meant that unskilled workers could be used in almost all the labour processes and all this without making them work longer hours.

There are two vital links that can be made here between Taylor’s study of time and motion and modernity. Firstly it would not have been possible for Taylor to conduct his study to any great extent without standardised time, which came to the fore with modernity. The introduction of the stop watch into the factory was important because it meant people were measured against mechanical time rather than the more natural time. Secondly the qualitative and quantitative shift in peoples experience during the period of modernity, which Georg Simmel describes in The Metropolis and Modern Life, can be seen by the fact that all Taylor’s principles had the specific purpose of increasing productivity.

Gramsci also points to the shift to quantity rather than quality where he argues that only quantity is consistent with production; quality is usually unique, as in art, and cannot be reproduced; whereas quantity can be reproduced, hence it is appropriate for mass production and mass consumption by the working classes (Gramsci, 1929, 307-8).

Apart from the inefficiency Taylor was shocked by the practice of skilled workers purposely working slowly, which he called ?soldiering’. Taylor condemned the piece-work system of labour which he claimed necessitated soldiering among workers and he split soldiering into two distinct types: ?natural soldiering’ and ?systematic soldiering’. The first was caused by “the natural instinct and tendency of men to take it easy” (Taylor in Braverman, 1974, 67) which he dismisses quickly to move onto the second form. Systematic soldiering, which Taylor describes as “great evil” is “done by the men with the deliberate object of keeping their employers ignorant of how fast work can be done”(Taylor in Braverman, 1974, 68). With his time and motion studies Taylor discovered that by exploiting the labourer’s labour power to its maximum far more could be produced so he attempted to implement his methods to increase productivity in his workforce who were not cooperative in the least since they disliked Taylors new methods and felt they would be working harder with no compensation. His pressure on the workers eventually manifested itself as Luddism on their part: “some one of the machinists would deliberately break some part of the machine”(Braverman, 1974,66). This he combatted by increasing wages for those who produced enough by his high standards. The huge increase in income from the larger productivity would easily allow the capitalist to increase the wages of his workforce.

Taylor’s studies became known as scientific management. Braverman splits Taylor’s scientific management into three principles: “the disassociation of the labour process from the skills of the worker”, “the separation of conception from execution” and “the use of this monopoly over knowledge to control each step of the labour process” (Braverman, 1974, pages:78,80,82).

Scientific management spelled the end for the craftsman since now it was not necessary for a worker to have any real understanding of his work, all that was needed was complete adherence to the management; to follow their instructions exactly. Gramsci picks up on this point of the disassociation of the labour process from the skills of the worker and suggests that this was the purpose of American society:

“developing in the worker to the highest degree automatic and mechanical attitudes, breaking up the old psycho-physical nexus of qualified professional work, which demands a certain active participation of intelligence, fantasy and initiative on the part of the worker, and reducing productive operations exclusively to the mechanical, physical aspect. But these things, in reality, are not original or novel: they represent simply the most recent phase of a long process which began with industrialism itself. This phase is more intense than preceding phases, and manifests itself in more brutal forms, but it is a phase which will itself be superseded by the creation of a psycho-physical nexus of a new type, both different from its predecessors and undoubtedly superior. A forced selection will ineluctably take place; a part of the old working class will be pitilessly eliminated from the world of labour, and perhaps from the world tout court”(Gramsci, 1929, 302-3).

In this quote Gramsci explains the more far reaching implications of Taylor’s labour processes, which he claims was not exclusive to the modern era but had begun with industrialism. The part of the old working class which would be eliminated, according to Gramsci, is the skilled manual labourer or craftsman. Although this had to some extent occurred well before Taylorism, scientific management put the final nail in the coffin.

With the loss of the craftsman, the advent of the assembly line and the division of labour, knowledge for production techniques passed from the worker to the management as did the power such knowledge held. Management held the monopoly over knoledge, workers became detached from their work were no longer required to understand what they were doing, reducing them, as Gramsci explains, to the “mechanical, physical aspect.” and this was indeed Taylors main aim: to create a factory which worked like a well oiled machine, the labourers vital cogs or machines themselves, working at a constant optimum speed which produced with great efficiency. And the management? High above, sitting at desks seeking new production techniques and ways to increase productivity and efficiency and cut costs even more.

The gap between management and labour therefore grew vastly when the management took control of organising the labour proccess. No longer was the skilled worker irreplacable. Now one worker was much the same as another, in fact the less skilled the worker the better in Taylorist factories.

In Taylor’s work we see the beginning of a trend which was later taken up by Ford to a much greater degree. While working for the Bethelehem Steel Company as a task managers for workers who carried heavy loads of pig iron from one place to another he began to take interest in a Dutchman he calls Schmidt and particularly in the fact that this man, after working for nine hours carrying pig iron, went to a plot of land and continued to work there building a small house. It was obvious for Taylor therefore that Schmidt had not used up all his energy when handling pig iron and could, concievably, be pressed to work harder and more efficiently. By increasing Schmidt’s wages from $1.15 to $1.85 (which gave him sufficient incentive to work as Taylor instructed) and making him work exactly as he was told, Taylor succeeded in making him carry forty seven and a half tons of iron a day as opposed to twelve and a half which was averaged before. In one step Taylor managed to get five times the work at a very low cost, $1.85 rather than $5.75 which it would have cost him to hire five men at twelve and a half tons a man.

For Taylor the level of output produced by Schmidt was “a pace under which men become happier and thrive”(Taylor in Braverman, 1974, 75) however Georges Friedmann a German physiologists calculated that it could not be set as a standard for workers because “most workers will succumb under the pressures of these labours”(Friedmann in Braverman, 1974, 75).

I mention this story not because Taylor managed to increase productivity in his worker by paying a higher wage, which in itself is a very important point which I shall come back to later, but because Taylor took an interest in what his workers were doing outside the workplace. This is something Ford turned his attention to and which Gramsci examines closely for its social implications. Before beginning with Gramsci’s views on Ford’s initiatives I will briefly explain the principles of Fordism.

Fordism is the application of Taylorism; it is the way in which greater productivity is achieved; not only does it develop efficiency in manufacturing, but it creates a new model of social organization from which everything irrational or unnecessary is discarded. The assembly line is an industrial arrangement of machines, equipment, and workers for continuous flow of workpieces in mass-production operations. It is designed by determining the sequences of operations for manufacture of each product component as well as the final product. Each movement of material is made as simple and short as possible with no cross flow or backtracking. Work assignments, numbers of machines, and production rates are programmed so that all operations performed along the line are compatible.

Ford’s assembly line initiatives were a revolution in the labour process, however his profit-sharing scheme, introduced in Detroit in 1913, shows a thoughtful attempt to mould every aspect of the lives of his workers to his company’s advantage i.e. to ensure they were working as close to their optimum efficiency as possible. This he attempted by minimising any outside (outside of the workplace that is) strains and stresses which would conceivably effect the workers performance in the workplace.

Of course workers would not willingly allow their employers to interfere in their private lives since they would not even willingly work in an assembly line which was very unpopular and led to workers leaving Ford factories in droves to seek similarly paid employment in factories with less strenuous, more traditional methods of production. Ford therefore made sure the incentives were high enough to obtain their compliance in both these matters so that workers became eager to keep their jobs regardless of how hard they were pushed and therefore stop them leaving which was costing his company and radically reducing the efficiency of his factories. He aimed for a stable, consistent workforce.

Gramsci better explains why increased wages are necessary in the Fordist mode of production:

“Adaptation to the new methods of production and work cannot take place simply through social compulsion…. Coercion has therefore to be ingeniously combined with persuasion and consent. This effect can be achieved, in forms proper to the society in question, by higher remuneration such as to permit a particular living standard which can maintain and restore the strength that has been worn down by the new form of toil.”(Gramsci, 1929, 310).

He does say previously, however, that higher wages are a double edged weapon because they give workers the income to spend on vices, such as alchohol and unchecked sexual activity, two of Fords main concerns for his workers. Both these ?vices’ placed undue stresses on Ford’s workers which meant they produced less in the factory, according to Ford.

Gramsci argues that Fordism requires that sexual instincts of the working class be regulated, and the institition best suited for this is the family in which regular and mechanical sex occurs, but not irregular pursuit of sexual passion:

“It seems clear that the new industrialism wants monogamy: it wants the man as worker not to squander his nervous energies in the disorderly and stimulating pursuit of occasional sexual satisfaction. The employee who goes to work after a night of ?excess’ is no good for his work. The exaltation of passion cannot be reconciled with the timed movements of productive motions connected with the most perfected automatism. This complex of direct and indirect repression and coercion exercised on the masses will undoubtedly produce results and a new form of sexual union will emerge whose fundamental characteristic would apparently have to be monogamy and relative stability.” (Gramsci, 1929, 303-6)

Gramsci goes on to note the moral gap Fordism is creating between the bourgousie and the working class. Bourgeois, especially its women, freely pursue sex and prostitution; their daily lives do not require regimentation; in contrast, this does not occur in the working class where regimentation in Taylorized work is required.

The gap also grows with regards to alchohol. Ford did not allow alchohol to be consumed by his workers because of fears I have already mentioned. This idea of alcohol being a great evil on the working class spread throughout America hence prohibition. According to Gramsci prohibition was required in the working classes in order that excessive drinking did not interfere with the discipline required in work; in contrast, the upper classes ignored prohibition as they could afford the expensive supplies of alcohol provided by the bootleggers. He argued that:

“Someone who works for a wage, with fixed hours, does not have time to dedicate himself to the pursuit of drink or to sport or evading the law.” and that,

“struggle against alcohol…becomes a function of the state.” because he calls alcohol “the most dangerous agent of destruction of labouring power” (Gramsci, 1929, 302-4).

What did workers have to do to become members of Ford’s profit-share scheme? To receive the extra wages workers were expected to “improve their living conditions, to keep their houses clean and comfortable and to ensure they lived in a healthy, well-ventilated and well-lit environment”(Doray, 1988, 190) and about one hundred investigators were responsible for collecting information about the morality, respectability, habits and opinions of applicants over a period of years.

It should be clearly understood that Ford’s puritanical initiatives had nothing to do with saving their souls. Indeed Gramsci picks up on this point:

“It is certain that they are not concerned with the “humanity” or the “spirituality” of the worker, which are immediately smashed. This “humanity and spirituality” cannot be realised except in the world of production and work and in productive “creation”… “Puritanical” initiatives simply have the purpose of preserving, outside of work, a certain psycho-physical equilibrium which prevents the physiological collapse of the worker, exhausted by the new method of production…American industrialists are concerned to maintain the continuity of the physical and muscular-nervous efficiency of the worker. It is their interests to have a stable, skilled labour force, a permanently well-adjusted complex, because the human complex (the collective worker) of an enterprise is also a machine which cannot, without considerable loss, be taken to pieces too often and renewed with single new parts” (Gramsci, 1929, 303).

I have discussed many aspects of Taylorism and Fordism in this essay and I have argued that they were far more than just modern modes of organising labour. I have argued that while aspects of these have been seen prior to modernity many of the aspects were specific to the modern era, although Gramsci claims that they began with industrialism itself. I have argued that social and class relations were significantly effected and how workers began to be seen as machines rather than humans. I have also talked of Ford’s initiatives to make work rule whole life of the worker and of Gramsci’s opinions on the subject, how it was a whole new way of organising society.

However much more could still have been discussed. I have brushed over the changes these methods of production made in relation to science and also the effect the loss of the craftsman had on society, science and particularly culture. And of course I have not mentioned the totalitarian regimes of Nazism and Stalinism which used aspects Taylorism and Fordism with ruthless disregard for humanity. Taylorism and Fordism were far more than just modern methods of organising labour and this has to be remebered to help us understand the modern era as well as today.


Berman, Marshall, All that is Solid Melts into Air, 1982, Simon and Schuster, New York.

Braverman, Harry, Labour and Monopoly Capital, 1974, Monthly Review Press, New York.

Doray, Bernard (translation by David Macey), From Taylorism to Fordism: a Rational Madness, 1988, Free Association Books, London.

Gramsci, Antonio, Prison Notebooks, 1929-32, in Course Reader.

Simmel, Georg, The Metropolis and Modern Life, 1903, in Course Reader.

Berman, Marshall, All that is Solid Melts into Air, 1982, Simon and Schuster, New York.

Braverman, Harry, Labour and Monopoly Capital, 1974, Monthly Review Press, New York.

Doray, Bernard (translation by David Macey), From Taylorism to Fordism: a Rational Madness, 1988, Free Association Books, London.

Gramsci, Antonio, Prison Notebooks, 1929-32, in Course Reader.

Simmel, Georg, The Metropolis and Modern Life, 1903


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