The Geography and Ideology of Accounting: A Case Study of Domination and Accounting in a Sugar Refinery in Australasia, 1900-1920

Article excerpt

Abstract: This historical case study examines accounting in a sugar refinery from 1900 to 1920 in two arenas of operation. The geography of accounting enabled the workers at Chelsea to have their working experience sequestered by the company. Accounting routinized their work at the refinery, enabling their labor to become monitored, empty of meaning, and, at times, overwhelming. The ideology of accounting provided the company with an instrument of evasion to silence the voice of labor and an instrument of self-deception designed to justify and insulate the authoritarian hierarchy of the company and the power of its Australian general manager, Edward Knox. Accounting became an ideology that sought to legitimate the exploitation of the workforce and the generous return to shareholders.

INTRODUCTION

This case study describes and interprets accounting practices situated in the New Zealand branch of an Australian company, the Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR). Known as Chelsea sugar refinery and located in the Auckland suburb of Birkenhead, the New Zealand company was started by Australian and New Zealand investors in 1883. This historical study examines accounting in the company from 1900 to 1920, particularly the use of accounting as a tool of domination. We examine this domination in two dimensions--the geography and the ideology of accounting. We explore the geography or locale of accounting in terms of the physical distance between the head office (Sydney) and Auckland and at the level of production locally at the Chelsea refinery. The accounting records enabled an autocratic and authoritarian leader to control the branch with vigorous surveillance from Australia. The Australian head office was unwilling to delegate any significant influence to the managers of the branch company. Decision authority was, therefore, effectively based in Australia, and any semblance of delegated authority was in form rather than substance. The geography/locale of accounting at Chelsea enabled the workers to have their working experience sequestered by the company [Giddens, 1991, p 149]. Accounting routinized their work at the refinery, enabling their labor to become monitored, empty of meaning, and, at times, overwhelming. It was only when crises or fateful moments [Giddens, 1991, p. 202], such as on-the-job accidents or union activity, introduced a moral reckoning that the accounting regime of truth [Foucault, 1980] created around the labor process was disrupted. Labor and production processes provided the location for accounting to control and monitor the labor force, known as "wage labour." It also provided the opportunity for labor to collectively reappropriate its closely monitored existence.

The ideology of accounting provided the company with an instrument of evasion to silence the voice of labor and became an instrument of self-deception designed to justify and insulate the authoritarian hierarchy of the company and the power of its Australian general manager, Edward Knox (EK) [Volf, 1996]. Accounting became an ideology that sought to legitimate the exploitation of the workforce and the generous return to shareholders and played a key role in advancing the particular interests of Knox and facilitating domination.

Based on the two dimensions, this paper aims to examine the broader narratives in which the accounting numbers were placed. These accounting-based narratives enabled the autocratic control and surveillance of the labor force to be carried out with a semblance of objectivity which sought to diffuse its contested nature. The narratives created a regime of truth that not only justified the way the workforce was deployed and managed under the hubris of efficiency but also enabled the more powerful narrative of shareholder returns. In the end, the accounting-based narratives presented by the company assumed it could melt the differing points of view of labor opposition into the common currency of a single truth [Volf, 1996, p. …