Manufacturing Rationality: The Engineering Foundations of the Managerial Revolution

By Yehouda Shenhav | Go to book overview

6
Taming the Shrew: Systems and Labor Politics during the Progressive Period

Progressivism was not one coherent scheme but, rather, an amalgam of ideas and ideals that converged under a single label (see Hofstadter 1955; Hays 1957; Kolko 1963; Haber 1964; Kloppenberg 1986). The movement, led by middle- class, well-to-do intellectuals and professionals, was stimulated by the power of giant industrial corporations and by corruption in politics, and had a large impact on diverse sectors such as government, industry, education, and art (e.g. DiMaggio 1991). Progressives demanded redistribution of wealth by means of welfare legislation and rebalancing economic power through antitrust legislation ( Hays 1957). The Progressive period was advantageous to the development of systems for at least two reasons. First, it provided legitimization for the roles of professionals in the public sphere. It was a period of unprecedented proliferation of new class technocrats such as educationalists, social workers, psychologists, doctors, government bureaucrats, health care specialists, lawyers, accountants, and, of course, engineers. Second, it was congruent with the agenda of systems, which seemed, on the face of it, to promote progress and equality.

Progressive culture and big systems supported each other, slouching toward an economic coherence that would replace the ambiguity of the robber barons' capitalism through bureaucratization and rationalization. Progressivism, like systems, facilitated industrial growth. Yet the Progressive era also 'brought' with it increased labor unrest. At the turn of the century, industrial unrest became recognized as a potential threat to the future of American democracy. The control of labor became an important goal for the industrial firms, which stood at a crucial crossroads in their attempt to stabilize business conditions and to develop legal business practices. 1 Reflecting this situation, a report of the United States Industrial Commission ( USIC) from 1902 expressed these fears and emphasized the importance of political stability ( Wunderlin 1992: 40).

The chaos and ambiguity associated with industrial unrest seemed to engineers to be solvable with the application of management systems. Mechanical engineers perceived themselves as gatekeepers at the junction between politics and economics, and they offered 'management systems' as a solution to industrial upheavals

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