Manufacturing Rationality: The Engineering Foundations of the Managerial Revolution

By Yehouda Shenhav | Go to book overview

2
Engineering Rationality: 'System Shall Replace Chaos'

The American Machinist opposed the extremists in management just as it now opposes similar extreme proposals of standardization. But rational standardization should and will have the support of every level-headed engineer and business man.

('Editorial', American Machinist, 7 May 1924: 668)

The chief risk lies in the tendency to concentrate the fixing of standards in a planning department which to be perfect should have, but in practice never can have all the wisdom of the universe.

('Editorial', Engineering Magazine, September 1911: 977)

Ohms and farads, kilograms and degrees (Celsius or Fahrenheit) were not given by nature, but settled upon by scientists, industrialists, bureaucrats, citizens, kings, and presidents.

( Porter 1994: 200)

The rise of the 'systems' paradigm -- and its various interpretations -- in American industry was an outcome of several intertwined processes, not the least of which was the growth of an engineering-based ideology of 'systematization'. Systematization was an ideology that crystallized within technical circles and was promoted by engineering magazines. The ideology stood for both rhetoric and practice, empirical and metaphysical, deductive and inductive, a category of the mind and a formal aspect of organizations. It was a mélange of ideas and arrangements, technical and administrative, that were categorized under one crude rubric: systems.

The advent of management systems represents a relocation of power from the traditional capitalist order into the hands of technocrats who did not control means of production but rather invented practices of engineering rationality. These technocrats did not base their authority on ownership, nor did they employ brute power. They worked by means of a discourse that shaped their surrounding reality. Their authority did not appear as controlling. They offered a helpful, rational hand for the mutual interest of employers and employees. Their ideology of rationality appeared neutral, outside the realm of power, politics, and ideology.

The cultural image that was promoted by this ideology trespassed from the technical field of engineering into social and economic domains. Eventually it

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