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The Cult of Effiency

Work that fragments the creative process into its most simple parts and then distributes each part to a person who repeats it and no other, is work that glorifies efficiency and productivity yet totally ignores the spirit of the person who must do it.

By David Stein  

Back around June I found myself exceptionally hard up for money and going nowhere in my job search, so I decided to go and offer myself to one of the temporary labour agencies here in Chicago "daily pay," as it's known. These places send workers out to a variety of companies, mostly factories in the suburbs, and pay minimum wage, from which taxes and a transportation charge are deducted. Every day you get a check for the previous day's work. At the agency I went to, you had to be there at 5:30 am in order to get sent out. The advantage for the companies using the agency is that they get a supply of workers to do the most menial jobs without having to pay a living wage or provide benefits such as health coverage and paid vacation.

The first day I was sent to a car parts factory in Skokie. The shift at the factory went from 6:15 am to 4:45 pm. That's ten and a half hours, minus thirty minutes for lunch and two ten minute breaks. My job was to mop the entire floor of the factory from front to back, plus clean or lift or tote anything anybody told me to. The mopping alone could easily fill nine hours and thirty minutes, and towards the end of the day I had to hustle to get the last of it done, even though I could swear the hands of the clock were standing still. I had to change the mop water dozens of times because most of the machines were leaking oil and coolant on the floor, so mopping was pretty much a losing battle anyway. I couldn't help wondering where all that junk went after I poured it down the floor drain.

The din of the machines was deafening. I made a point of standing in front of the supervisor (a personality type I won't analyse here) wadding up paper towels into little balls and sticking them in my ears in hope that I would be offered earplugs, but my oh-so-subtle hint was ignored. The overall scene in the place was something you would expect to find in Bangkok or Tijuana rather than Skokie.

Most of the other workers stood stationary at their machines, stamping or grinding some obscure car part, over and over again all day. They didn't seem to have it much better than I. A man named Mike who had been the one who showed me the ropes when I first started (which didn't take long) seemed to spend his time watching the clock and waiting for the ordeal to be over with for the day. Every time I passed him with my mop, he would shout over the noise something like, "Only 20 minutes till lunch time!" or "Only another hour and we're out of here!" Work was entirely dictated by the clock. When the siren sounded for break time, everybody shut off his/her machine and rushed outside to smoke a cigarette, then shuffled back in when the siren sounded again ten minutes later. I did this for three days, and on the fourth day the alarm clock rang and I couldn't have gotten out of bed if the house was burning down. I went back to sleep and then proceeded to enjoy the rest of my day off as if I had been reborn.

...any work that is joyful and creative, hence, inefficient, can be made boring and oppressive, hence efficient, by fragmentation.

I'm afraid that most people, if asked the point of this little story, would say the point is to make damn sure you don't get stuck in a job like that. Stay in school, get a degree, climb the career ladder, and you won't have to put up with that kind of treatment. It is taken for granted that somebody will have to put up with it, just make sure it isn't you. Boring, inhuman, machine-like work is generally seen as a form of punishment for being stupid, unschooled, unambitious, foreign-born, very young, or some combination of the above. The redeeming quality of the system is that, in theory, those diligent enough can rise up through the job hierarchy, or at least make enough money to send their kids to college so they won't have to work in a factory. If you try to protest that for anyone to be condemned to the kind of work I have described is an injustice, the likely reply is that there will always be shitty jobs that need to be done; there's no way around it.

What I am going to try to propose here is that by re-examining our thinking about the distribution and organisation of work, we can move toward a society in which no one is condemned to doing only repetitious, mindless, loveless work, a slave to the clock, and for all intents and purposes, just another piece of machinery.

Work in our society is organised in such a way that the goal of efficiency is valued above all other things. The major way that this is achieved is by fragmentation. Every process is divided into many separate tasks, and each task is done by a worker who performs that task and no other. The worker can be easily trained to do this one fragmentary task, which is often reduced to a single motion. She/he does not need to understand, care about or even be aware of the total process and end product. (At the car parts factory, it never occurred to anyone to tell me what they were making. Why on earth would I care? I knew what I had to do; that was enough).

A great advantage for management is that such workers are easily replaced; they are as interchangeable as the objects they produce and the machines they tend. The entire organisation can be considered a machine and the workers its moving parts. The mechanical model of work has the undoubted advantage of efficiency. This is how to produce the greatest quantities in the least time. What is not included in the calculation is the human factor. Is this any kind of life to live? Is the worker happy, interested, stimulated? The question is not regarded as worthy of consideration in the dry equations of "economics". To raise the question is to be dismissed as a hopelessly unrealistic romantic.

It seems to me that any work that is joyful and creative, hence, inefficient, can be made boring and oppressive, hence efficient, by fragmentation. For example, I carve wooden spoons and bowls with hand tools. This involves a series of more or less laborious steps, from splitting a log, to carving with chisel and knife, to the final sanding. Imagine this work divided into separate tasks, one person performing one step of the process all day long. What could be more boring and maddening than to do nothing but split logs all the time! Or to sand, sand, sand, on an endless succession of unfinished objects piling up inexorably before you! But as it is, I have shunned the efficient model of making things, and instead perform all the stages of the work myself, one object at a time. No single step is too burdensome, because it is inseparably linked to all the other steps. The result is that I am not very "productive." I crank out a smaller quantity of objects by doing things my way. Another very curious result of my inefficiency is that I love my work. In fact, I cannot even distinguish between work and leisure, as I would rather carve wood than do almost anything else. I don't spend my wood-carving hours sneaking glances at a clock, counting the time until the bell will ring and I can drop my tools and haul ass out of there, to get drunk or watch people shoot each other on TV.

The people who handle r the money ... set rules for house residents ... are the same people who cook the meals, wash the r dishes, mop the floors ... and clean the toilets ... it is not beneath you to use the floors or dishes or toilets, how can it be beneath you to clean them?

One particular unquestioned tenet of the cult of efficiency is that no one does work for which she/he is "overqualified". One who is trained to take her/his place in the managerial or technical sector of the economy must not be "wasted" by doing work that a less highly-trained person could do. Our educational system is absolutely pervaded with this doctrine; in fact, the doctrine is practically the very basis of that system. Young people are bludgeoned to death with warnings that they must not "waste their potential." People who get processed by the educational system and emerge with college degrees, and then choose to do some form of manual work, face relentless disapproval and bewilderment from family, peers and prospective employers. Every part of the machinery, even if it is a human being, must be used to the utmost efficiency. It would be unthinkable for a vice-president of a company to put in a regular shift on the assembly line, or vacuum the office or do child care for single-parent employees. This would be seen as an insane waste of an expensive piece of equipment, like using a brand-new computer for a doorstop.

Machine-think has spread from the factory into just about every aspect of society. The mechanised factory is the universal model. We see it in the proliferation of "experts" and "professionals" whose opinions, clothed in the jargon of their specialty, inform us about the issues of the day. We see it in the structure of too many social service and "justice" organisations, rigidly moulded into hierarchies of directors who direct, administrators who administer, managers who manage, fund raisers who fund raise, social workers who social work, all the way down to janitors who janit. This hierarchy presumably keeps their efficiency up to the standard of the corporations on whose tax-deductible generosity they depend, or is at least intended to project the image of such efficiency.

A glaring exception to the adoption of the cult of efficiency is the Catholic Worker movement. In a Catholic Worker community, the administrators and the janitors are the same people. The people who handle the money, write and edit the newsletters, set rules for house residents and organise political actions are the same people who cook the meals, wash the dishes, mop the floors, weed the garden, and clean the toilets. This doesn't mean there is a legalistic requirement that every person must do every job. Maybe it's more convenient to have one person in charge of balancing the chequebook; maybe some people are not as good cooks as others and so can be excused from cooking too often. Adjustments are made for these things, but the point is that no work is beneath anyone, no matter what your intellectual qualifications are. If it is not beneath you to use the floors or dishes or toilets, how can it be beneath you to clean them?

The Catholic Worker is a revolutionary movement that sees life and livelihood and service to others as an organic unity, not a manufacturing process to be broken into fragments. It is a lot like my woodcarving.

First printed in The Catholic Agitator, May 1994. The Catholic Agitator is produced ten times a year by the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, 632, N.Brittania St., Los Angeles, CA 90022. USA.

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