By Helen Shooter
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The hidden, and very old, history of ‘modernisation’

This article is over 19 years, 1 months old
MODERNISATION IS what workers are told to accept. There is nothing \"modern\" about it at all. It is as old as capitalism. And its real meaning is the same as it always has been: \"You have to work harder and longer.\" It is 70 years since Charlie Chaplin famously attacked \"modernisation\" in his brilliant film Modern Times.
Issue 1829

MODERNISATION IS what workers are told to accept. There is nothing ‘modern’ about it at all. It is as old as capitalism. And its real meaning is the same as it always has been: ‘You have to work harder and longer.’ It is 70 years since Charlie Chaplin famously attacked ‘modernisation’ in his brilliant film Modern Times.

And it is over a century since the prophet of ‘modernisation’, Frederick Winslow Taylor, pioneered his creed. His work gave rise to the dogma of ‘Taylorism’, which lies behind all the management-speak, and the New Labour mantra, of modernisation today. It is a gospel of the time and motion study, of the production target driven by the bullying line manager, of the relentless push to squeeze more and more work out of people.

At root it is what Karl Marx memorably called the bosses’ desire to ‘fill up the pores of the working day’. For most of the last century bosses pushed this ‘modernisation’ into factories and assembly lines. Many office workers and other white collar workers have been subject to the same tyranny in recent decades.

New Labour is now determined to extend the same methods right across public services like schools, hospitals and the fire service. The result would be as it always has been – longer hours, greater stress and job cuts. Modernisation, translated into plain English, means more exploitation. When Taylor pioneered such methods in the late 19th century in the US, he was hailed by bosses everywhere.

He backed up his arguments for what he called modern ‘scientific’ management by parading a ‘model worker’, who he called Schmidt. The real story of what happened to this worker was long kept secret, because it could have discredited the whole creed.

Schmidt was not the worker’s real name. He was in fact Henry Noll. Taylor gave him a new name to conjure up the idea of a ‘dumb immigrant’ among the business audience he was preaching to – though in fact Noll could read and write and had been to grammar school.

In 1899 Noll worked at a steel works in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Taylor knew Noll was saving to build a house so he offered him a bonus rate if he could work as hard as physically possible, insisting, ‘And what’s more, no back talk.’

A labourer at the Bethlehem works normally shifted 24 tons of pig iron in a ten-hour day. Taylor got Noll to load 47 tons a day for a 61 percent pay ‘differential’. Taylor used this to set a new ‘norm’ for the job, so driving up production. The tale was held up as an example of what could be achieved by ‘modern’ working methods, and became the bedrock of Taylor’s 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management.

Taylor kept secret for years that the super-exploitation had utterly destroyed Henry Noll. Researchers discovered years later that Noll had become old before his time and taken to drink, and that his wife had left him as a result of Taylor’s experiment in modern working. The wreckage of Henry Noll’s life didn’t stop Frederick Winslow Taylor. He applied his methods ruthlessly to factory workers who inspected ball bearings.

He decided they spent too much time ‘in partial idleness, talking and half working, or actually doing nothing’. Taylor cut the workforce so 35 women did the work that 120 had previously done. He did this by speeding up the work of those who remained. He seated the women so far apart that they could not talk to each other.

Taylor’s methods were adapted for use in the early mass assembly lines in the car industry and then, in one form or another, spread across the world of work. Whenever they were introduced workers have resisted. In 1910 workers in the US government’s arsenal in Waterstown, Boston, struck against the impact of Taylorism.

One striker described how, in a way that will sound dreadfully familiar to many today, ‘every time I turn I find a man with a watch watching me. If I go after * anything he is watching me. When I come he is watching me.’

‘Obey our orders, do what we say, and do it quick’

TAYLOR’S ‘modernisation’, like its counterpart today, was about breaking workers’ collective resistance to exploitation. As a ‘gang boss’ in a small pump works Taylor had come face to face with this resistance, and he bitterly resented it. Taylor had tried to force the pace of work, only to find that ‘every solitary man turned right around and joined the rest of his fellows and refused to work one bit faster’.

He wanted a world instead where bosses and managers had everything their way: ‘All we want is for the workers to obey the orders we give them, do what we say, and do it quick.’ Taylor wanted to turn workers into machines that he could speed up at will – a world where workers had no say and trade unions had no power. Karl Marx, writing 150 years ago, noted how under capitalism workers are ‘hourly and daily enslaved by the machine’.

Marx also wrote about the brutal effect this has on people’s lives: ‘It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It haggles over a mealtime, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself. It reduces the sound sleep to just so many hours of torpor as the revival of an organism, absolutely exhausted, renders essential.’

That is a description which feels just as relevant today, whether you are a slave to the factory production line or a computer in a call centre. It is precisely New Labour’s vision for workers in the NHS or the fire service too. And that is why firefighters and every other group of workers are absolutely right to reject calls for ‘modernisation’. They are nothing more than a smokescreen for old fashioned exploitation.


Marx got right to the root of the matter

KARL MARX explained how exploitation is built into capitalism. A tiny minority of people own the means of producing wealth – factories, offices and equipment. Workers only have their capacity to work, their ‘labour power’. They have to sell this to get the money to live on. But workers produce more value in a working day than the boss pays the workers in wages – that is why the boss employs them.

This ‘surplus value’, as Marx called it, is the source of all profit. This doesn’t just apply to workers who make products like, say, cars. Nurses, firefighters, teachers and postal workers are exploited too. The work they do is part of the general process of production in society. Yet they are only paid a fraction of the value of their work.

Marx also showed that this exploitation means there is a continual struggle between the two basic classes in society, bosses and workers. Bosses, because they’re competing with other bosses, are under pressure to extract more and more from workers.

One way they do this is by making workers work longer and harder. That is what ‘modernisation’ means. Marx also explained that, while bosses try to grab more, workers are pushed to fight back.

Marx’s central argument was that if we want to get rid of exploitation altogether then ultimately we have to get rid of the system of which it is a fundamental pillar.

Facts on time

Working hours have been getting longer

FOR MILLIONS of people work is already hell. British workers work the longest hours in Europe. A third of working fathers work more than 48 hours a week. Women work an average 2.1 hours a week more than in 1992. This is a far cry from the hopes in the 1960s that working life was going to get easier.

There were debates in the media about the ‘excess of leisure time’ and how people would cope. Instead the reality of the last 25 years has been four major recessions. Each time the bosses have tried to make sure workers pay. In the US, the richest country in the world, male workers now work on average 160 hours a year more than in 1975.

Women workers in the US work on average 200 hours a year more. Yet real wages by 1998 were less than 25 years earlier. In Britain workers face the prospect of having to work even longer into their old age, with New Labour discussing a rise in the age of retirement.

For more on Marx’s explanation of exploitation under capitalism see the short book Economics of the Madhouse by Chris Harman (available from Bookmarks bookshop). Or try the chapter entitled ‘The Working Day’ in Karl Marx’s Capital, which is available on the internet at

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