[Marxism] Slavery and the development of modern management techniques

Clinton Fernandes cfer at deakin.edu.au
Sun Jul 18 08:03:57 MDT 2004

      An excerpt from the Journal of Management Studies, Vol 40, Issue 8, December 2003.


      This article is about the wrongful exclusion of American slavery from histories of management. There is at least an argument that this is of intrinsic relevance to management studies. This is a part empirical revision that writes in a missing link with one of the most significant, and devastating social processes to have affected Africa, Europe, and the Americas in the modern era. This revision extends what is recognized as the collective understanding of our field.

      If this is not enough, however, there is additional significance in relation to the construction of management history, and the purposes that that history serves. This derives from a view of history that its writing is as much about the present in which it is produced, as it is about the past. History is 'never for itself. It is always for someone' (Jenkins, 1991, p. 17); and as Cooke (1999, p. 83) points out, 'the way history is written, the choices made in selecting and ignoring past events are shaped by prevailing, albeit competing power relations and their associated ideologies.'

      From this position, what is called history, but might more accurately be called historiography, contributes to the legitimization of present day institutions, practices, and bodies of knowledge; but also to emergent and established critiques thereof. Thus, a standard history in which management first emerges on the US railroads from the 1840s onwards (Chandler, 1977) associates it with what is often represented as an heroic, frontier extending episode in the history of the United States. Extending Pushkala Prasad's (1997) identification of the intra- organizational imprints of the myth of the frontier, this association can be seen to give management a broader social and cultural legitimacy.

      A history which constructs an alternative narrative, in which American, and particularly US pre-Civil War slavery is a site of the birth of management (as is the case here) gives management quite different associations, with oppression and exploitation. This history would imply quite a different view of the social legitimacy of management in itself. In making its case, presenting data and the interpretations of non-management historians, it would also undermine any claim of the heroic model to be based in the only empirically true representation of the past.

      Of course, such a history would equally challenge any version of the history of management which explicitly or otherwise excludes slavery. Every version I have seen does so exclude; this a general phenomenon. It is the case even of critical approaches to management, including those which present alternatives to orthodox historiography (e.g. Jacques, 1996), and/or point to other historical instances of management's complicity in the worst forms of oppression (e.g. Burrell, 1997) on management in/of the holocaust). The implications that this article has for these versions does vary according to their historical/historiographical approach and position, and these are addressed in the conclusion. There are implications are for the whole of management studies, though; and it is management studies as a whole which has excluded - indeed denied - slavery.
      A Prima Facie Case 

      At the time of writing, this is feels like quite a remarkable claim, and indeed part of my main thesis is that it is unprecedented. But even the briefest prima facie consideration of the organization, scale, and significance of slavery provides strong support. Martin Luther King's use of metaphor associated with the production line and bureaucracy (Morgan, 1986) is neither anachronistic or unique. Fogel (1989, p. 28) confirms this with a quotation from Bennet Barrow's Highland plantation rules: 'A plantation might be considered as a piece of machinery. To operate successfully all its parts should be uniform and exact, and its impelling force regular and steady.'

      Equally telling is Olmsted, who wrote in 1860 of one plantation (1860, pp. 53-4): 'The machinery of labor was ungeared during a day and a half a week, for cleaning and repairs, experience having proved here, as it has in Manchester and New York, that operatives do very much better work if thus privileged . . . Regarding only the balance sheet of the owners ledger it was admirable management.' In this short paragraph Olmsted employs the machine metaphor; suggests a conscious proto-Hawthorne manipulation of rest periods and uses the very word 'management' to describe this. In repeating a parallel he makes elsewhere with Manchester and New York (1860, p. 27), Olmsted also by implication locates the plantation within a global, capitalist, economy.

      Elsewhere, in one of the few direct references to slavery in management histories, Jacques (1996, p. 42) claims that the US Civil War 'is usually represented as either a contest between state and national authority or a fight to end slavery. It was in part both these things, but it could more appropriately be termed the country's Industrial Revolution. By 1865, the industrializing North of the US had politically demolished the feudal economy of the manorial South.'

      This is not a received view amongst contemporary historians (see McPherson, 2001). Fogel (1989) shows that if the North and the 'feudal' and 'manorial' South were considered separately, and ranked among countries of the world 'the South would stand as the fourth most prosperous country in the world in 1860. The South was more prosperous than France, Germany, Denmark or any of the countries of Europe' (1989, p. 87). The South was also continuing to industrialize, albeit more slowly than the North, on the basis of slave labour; and it was in reality not a separate country but an integral, and according to Richards (2000) the most politically powerful, part of the burgeoning US state and capitalist economy. Fogel states: 'throughout the eighteenth century, the great plantations of the sugar colonies . . . were the largest private enterprises of the age, and their owners were among the richest of all men. The same can be said of the cotton plantations in the United States on the eve of the Civil War' (Fogel, 1989, p. 24).

      Of course, the eve of the Civil War takes us well into the time period of 1840 onwards in which orthodox histories (Chandler, 1977; also Wren, 1972) have management emerging on the railroads. According to Taylor (1999, p. xxvi), by 1860 'capital investment in slaves in the [US] south - who now numbered close to 4 million, or close to one third of the population - exceeded the value of all other capital worth including land'. US slavers could therefore literally have claimed 'our people are our greatest asset'. Management studies is concerned with a field which can define itself as about 'the process of getting activities completed efficiently with and through other people' (Robbins, 1994, p. 3). Yet it has not exhibited even superficial curiosity about how these four million enslaved people were managed, at the very time and in the very nation where it claims management to have been born, in a set of long established, economically important organizations.
      The Structure and Approach of the Article 

      As I have already stated, this is the case for the range of differing understandings that there are of management. Considering these understandings collectively, and trying despite their difference to account for the exclusion of slavery is not without its methodological problems. But as the next section demonstrates, none of the three main schools of managerial thought Grey (1999) identifies (technical, elite, and political) sees the management of people who were slaves as having anything to do with modern management.

      That section will also explore why this is the case. Recognizing the vastness and diversity of the field Grey quite helpfully follows Reed (1989) in identifying exemplar texts for each of the schools; and he also argues despite their differences they together constitute a taken for granted understanding of what management is. These exemplars, and this taken for granted understanding are then examined to reveal the often implicit logic which appears to have led to the denial of slavery.

      Subsequent sections of the article will in turn refute the three main components of this logic. The third section will analyse slavery's relationship with capitalism, and its role in the emergence of industrial discipline. The fourth section will review how slave plantations were managed, and the fifth section will set out the extent to which there was a distinctive management occupational category in the ante-bellum south. The material that is drawn on in these three sections, aside from one or two primary sources, is the work of political, social, and economic historians of slavery. That these are secondary rather than primary sources actually lends strength to the underlying claim of denial. The material which management studies has ignored is not obscure hard to retrieve primary data; but the often publicly acclaimed (e.g. David Brion-Davis, cited below, has won the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize, and the National Book Award for books on slavery) and widely reviewed work of those with a longstanding and substantial institutional presence in the academy.

      The conclusion assesses the implications of the preceding sections on their own terms, in relation to management history/historiography more generally, and for various versions of that history. In so doing it proposes a more postcolonialist understanding of that history; but at the same time suggests that this should not be seen as the only, or even primary significance of the article. If there is to be one message above all to arise from this article, the conclusion suggests, it is that with which it started - that management studies has wrongly excluded slavery; and that that exclusion is properly termed a denial.

      The Standards on Slavery 

      When it comes to slavery's actual, rather than metaphorical, presence in management there is little to be found. The standard histories of management either make no mention at all of ante-bellum slavery in the modern context (for example, Pollard, 1968; Wren, 1972), or alternatively explicitly exclude it from modernity, as we have already seen with Jacques (1996). An explanation of both unspoken and explicit exclusions is sought here in a review of three texts proposed as exemplars on management by Grey (1999), after Reed (1989), namely Burnham (1942), Braverman (1974) and Chandler (1977).

      Grey follows Reed in distinguishing between technical, elite and political accounts of the emergence of management. In the technical account, exemplified by Chandler, the 'growth in scale and complexity of capitalist enterprises required the development of a new group of specialists to manage' (Grey, 1999, p. 566); hence the requirement to coordinate through the visible hand of these managers rather than the invisible hand of the market. In the elite account, exemplified by Burnham, management is seen as a body of theory and practice which sustains an advantageous status for a particular, managerial, elite, which is able to attain that position in the first place because of the separation of ownership from control. In the political account, exemplified by Braverman, management emerged from the drive to subject workers to the discipline required by capitalist accumulation. According to Grey, 'it may be noted that while this political approach to management is opposed to the functionalism of technical accounts of management, it has its own functionalism: workplace discipline is seen as functional of the drive for capital accumulation, and is at least in indirect form, functional to capital accumulation' (1999, p. 568).

      All three exemplars locate slavery outside the development of modern management. Burnham presents a quasi-Marxist epochal history of economic development, which concludes not in socialism but managerialist corporatism, and does therefore cover the era of ante-bellum slavery. But for Burnham wage labour is a defining characteristic of the capitalist epoch, implicitly precluding any consideration of slavery, which consequently is only mentioned briefly in relation to feudalism. For Braverman, the production process is framed by the 'antagonism between those who carry on the process and those for whom it is carried out, those who manage and those who execute . . .' (1974, p. 68). But again, any recognition of this antagonism on ante-bellum plantations is precluded by wage labour as a defining feature of capitalism, and slavery is only mentioned in relation to ancient Egypt.

      Chandler pays most attention to slavery, over three pages; but these are three of 500, and their title ('The plantation - an ancient form of large scale production' (1977, p. 64)) makes his pre-modern situating of slavery clear. Chandler clearly recognizes some managerial complexity in the plantation economy. It is accepted that there was some division of labour, and managerial record keeping suggested a certain level of sophistication. Chandler also states that as the first salaried manager in the USA, 'the plantation overseer was an important person in American economic history. The size of this group (in 1850 overseers numbered 18,859) indicates that many planters did feel that they needed full time assistance to carry out their managerial tasks' (1977, p. 64). Despite this it is asserted that the Southern plantation 'had little impact on the evolution of the modern business enterprise' (1977, p. 66), for three reasons. First, notwithstanding the nearly 19,000 overseers, Chandler claims there was no meaningful separation of ownership and control. 'The majority of southern planters directly managed the property they owned' (1977, p. 64) which, we should remind ourselves, included people, and cites Fogel and Engerman's (1974) claim that many owners of large plantations did not employ resident salaried overseers.

      Second, he argues that plantations were limited in scale. Thus the 'plantation workforce was small by modern standards. Indeed it was smaller than in contemporary New England cotton mills . . . [in] 1850 only 1479 plantations had more than 100 slaves' (Chandler, 1977, p. 64). The scope for managerialism to develop was by implication constrained; hence Chandler's third argument, that there was a lack of managerial sophistication on the plantations. The managerial task was 'almost wholly the supervision of workers' (1977, p. 65), which by implication was straightforward, and indeed a little more than a seasonal requirement ('only at those critical periods of planting and harvesting . . . did the work of the planter the overseer and the drivers become more than routine' (1977, p. 65)). Division of labour was limited, the accounting there was simple, and in any case book keeping was more likely to be undertaken by the plantation owner.
      A Logic of Denial 

      What the exemplars Burnham, Braverman and Chandler have in common is the construction of a grand narrative, in which the emergence of management as an activity and of managers as a group or class is a consequence of the growth and increasing industrial sophistication of a globalizing capitalist economy. In addition, for Grey, for their real theoretical differences the three perspectives 'collectively constitute the fabric of the knowledge through which the commonsense and taken-for-granted reality of management is woven'. This knowledge is that '. . . management is what managers do' (1999, p. 569); that is, a conflation of a certain set of distinctive managerial activities ('what managers do') with an occupational category possessing a distinct managerial identity (i.e. 'managers'). Taken together these shared features produce three inter-related tests for inclusion in modern management, which whatever it was that facilitated profitable production on the backs of 4 million enslaved people apparently fails. First, for management to be modern, it has to take place within the capitalist system. Slavery is excluded from capitalism explicitly by Chandler with his assertion of ancientness, and his claims for a lack of separation of ownership and control in particular, and tacitly by Burnham and Braverman with their specification of wage labour as a defining feature. Second, for management to be management, the activities carried out in its name have to be of a certain level of sophistication - for Chandler, beyond the apparently simple harnessing of enslaved people's seasonally varying labour, for Burnham and Braverman in order to achieve wage labourers' submission to capitalist relations and processes of production. Third there has to be a group of people carrying out these management activities who have a distinctive identity as managers.

      The following three sections will show that the ante-bellum plantation economy actually passes rather than fails these tests. I will begin by exploring the case not just for locating the plantation economy within the development of capitalism, but for seeing it as a site of the emergence of industrial discipline, as attempts were made to overcome the resistance of enslaved people in the production process. Next, I will show that managerial practice in the face of this resistance was sophisticated to the extent that it closely resembled what we now see as scientific management and as classical management theory. Third, I will show there was a substantial (greater even than Chandler allows) cadre of managers, labelled as such, with a managerial identity sustained by white supremacist racism. Although much that follows in these sections explicitly rebuts Chandler, it only does so because his is the only history of management which gives slavery serious mention. To restate, this article is about the exclusion of slavery throughout management studies, not just in Chandler.


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