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Treason in Defense of Scientific Management

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I must admit that I don’t find this at all surprising:

Caitlin C. Rosenthal didn’t intend to write a book about slavery. She set out to tackle something much more mundane: the history of business practices. But when she started researching account books from the mid-1800s, a period of major economic development during the rise of industrialization in the United States, Rosenthal stumbled across an unexpected source of innovation.

Rosenthal, a Harvard-Newcomen Fellow in business history at Harvard Business School, found that southern plantation owners kept complex and meticulous records, measuring the productivity of their slaves and carefully monitoring their profits—often using even more sophisticated methods than manufacturers in the North. Several of the slave owners’ practices, such as incentivizing workers (in this case, to get them to pick more cotton) and depreciating their worth through the years, are widely used in business management today.

Though it appears this is all news to historians of business, historians of slavery have been pointing this out more or less since the 1970s. In an oft-cited 1973 article in the Journal of Economic History, R. Keith Aufhauser pointed out that the task system — usually regarded as less brutal than gang labor — enabled plantation overseers to calibrate particular jobs to the capabilities of particular slaves, and that the meager forms of autonomy available to the enslaved within the task system (e.g., small garden plots and other “rewards” for obedient labor) enabled managers to assert greater control over the enslaved. Historians since the 1970s pretty well demolished Eugene Genovese’s assertion slavery was a feudal anomaly within an emerging bourgeois capitalist economy, and I can’t think of any recent work on slavery that hasn’t emphasized slavery’s ruthless capitalist aspects. Then again, classic business histories like Alfred Chandler’s Visible Hand and Daniel Wren’s Evolution of Management Thought had utterly nothing to say about the genealogical relationship between slavery and scientific management, so I suppose it’s a promising sign that business historians like Rosenthal are finally catching up….

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