Manufacturing Rationality: The Engineering Foundations of the Managerial Revolution

By Yehouda Shenhav | Go to book overview

Introduction

Pangloss . . . proved incontestably . . . that things cannot be other than they are, for since everything was made for a purpose, it follows that everything is made for the best purpose. Observe: our noses were made to carry spectacles, so we have spectacles. Legs were clearly intended for breeches, and we wear them. Stones were meant for carving and for building houses, and that is why my lord has a most beautiful house . . . It follows that those who maintain that all is right talk nonsense; they ought to say that all is for the best.

( Voltaire, Candide, 20)

Managerial rationality is a powerful mode of thought and code of conduct in the modern world. 1 Its emergence in the early twentieth century offered a clear vision of social order as a panacea for inefficiency and chaos, replacing former ideologies such as Social Darwinism, welfare capitalism, and religious discourses of labor. Common wisdom -- in academic and popular circles alike -- asserts that managerial rationality represents the American industrial way, a natural extension of economic progress, and the inevitable outcome of universal business practices. The managerial revolution (which pointed historically to the dispersion of corporate ownership) is, likewise, generally portrayed as a 'silent revolution' with no obvious protagonists or antagonists. 2 It is represented as a narrative of progression carried out by social agents for the benefit of all people. 3 Management guru Peter Drucker stated this position very clearly:

Rarely, if ever, has a new basic institution, a new leading group, emerged as fast as has management since the turn of the century. Rarely in human history has a new institution proven indispensable so quickly; and even less often has a new institution arrived with so little opposition, so little disturbance, so little controversy. ( Drucker 1986: 3)

This all-embracing view of management -- an ideal, teleological, and not very factual view -- is the product of historical reification. Drucker's observation, and organizational texts in general, tend to purge management history of its inherent conflicts and disputes. 4 After all, a 'revolution without revolutionaries' seldom involves conflict and tension. The non-conflictual view of the rise of management contradicts early historical discords between capitalist owners and their hired managers. Adam Smith already foresaw such discords in the late eighteenth century, with the ascendancy of the English industrial revolution. Smith expressed deep skepticism regarding the ability of salaried managers -- rather than owners/capitalists -- to manage industrial firms honestly and efficiently:

Being the managers rather of other people's money than of their own, it cannot well be expected, that they should watch over it with the same anxious vigilance with which the

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