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Daniel Bell and the cult of efficiency

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Wednesday, Jan 26, 2011

Sociologist Daniel Bell has died, at age 91. Reading The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism when I was studying literature as a graduate student made me wish I was getting a sociology degree instead—he seemed to be writing about stuff that was more relevant than, say, medicinal tropes in the work of Samuel Richardson. I didn’t agree with all of his arguments, but the title of that book alone encompasses a lot of what strikes me as worth analyzing: those cultural contradictions shape our everyday lives; we are made miserable trying to live them, trying to resolve them. I blogged about the book a few times, here (“Bell wants to call the self-serving individualism a product of a pernicious modernist attitude that’s then imported into late capitalism rather than acknowledge that it’s a consequence of consumerism itself”) and here (“The fixation on preventing hipsters from destroying authenticity would seem to recur to Bell’s idea of fixing a more or less arbitrary limit on culture. In capitalist society, a hipster figure will always be generated by the way commercialization is necessary for cultural legitimization—commercial viability has replaced religious sanction in this respect.”).


Also Dissent linked to a 1959 article (pdf) today that makes much of the point I was trying to make in yesterday’s post about quantification much more elegantly.


Actually, the root of alienation lies not in the machine—as romantics like William Morris or Friedrich Junger were prone to say—but in the concept of efficiency which underlies the organization of the work process. The idea of efficiency dictates a breakdown of work and a flow of work in accordance with engineering rationality. It seeks to increase output by erasing any “waste”; and waste is defined as those moments of time which are not subject to the impersonal control of the work process itself. Central to the idea of efficiency is a notion of measurement. Modern industry in fact, began not with the factory—the factory has been known in ancient times—but with measurement. Through measurement we passed from the division of labor into the division of time. Through measurement, industry was able to establish a calculus of time and pay a worker on the basis of units of work performed. But the value of work itself could only be defined in terms of its cost to the user; and cost was—and is—conceived primarily in narrow market terms. Thus the psychological costs of indifference or neuroses, the social costs of road and transport, are charges all outside the interest and control of the enterprise.


In other words, firms reap the rewards of quantification while we sort out the detrimental impact. When we impose quantification on ourselves as a way of trying to deal with it, I think that only makes the psychological costs exponentially worse.

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