Illiberation


My hero: Henry L. Gantt

" … the utter subjugation of every individual contributor to the will of the machine."

Henry was a very smart bear working for a very powerful man. The powerful man was an authoritarian, convinced of his own genius, who strong-armed his way into giant corporations, gaining permission to implement tactics the owners lacked the hutzpah to introduce themselves. He called himself a scientist, though he was more Puritan than professor. He touted The One Best Way, and was so convinced of the righteousness of his cause that he infected others with his zealotry. He believed in First Class Men, those who exceeded his expectations. All others, he believed, lacked sufficient motivation to succeed and were therefore unworthy of receiving anything.

Henry worked as a sort of chief of staff to his patron.
He worked the raw numbers into coherent form. He observed while his patron acted. He reflected while his patron preached. He got to know those who found themselves working under his patron's thumb. I figure he must have spent a decade or more numbed from his close association with such revolutionary activity. It must have felt empowering to be there so close to the epicenter of such significant transformation. It was all a sham, a self-serving command structure enslaving decent people and enriching the ruling class.

Henry finally defected from the machine. He'd acquired enough credentials that people would listen to his still small voice. He had the numbers. He had the proof. His ex-patron vilified Henry, but the patron was already riding the down elevator toward his own demise. His peers had elected him the chief of their American Society, a professional group dedicated to proliferating the influence of trained engineers. He applied his theories too close to home, mismanaging the society almost into ruin. His primary client discovered that he'd pirated an important patent for personal gain and banished him while Henry's small voice reported what had actually been happening on the inside for all those years. The ex-patron disowned Henry as the traitor he finally became.

Engineers were smart people even then. They quickly recognized the truth in Henry's calculations. Some factory owners whom the patron had defrauded hired Henry to fix the messes, and Henry delivered. He taught others the trade, how to move away from the mythical One Best Way toward a sort of regulation that actually worked. The owners would have to give some to continue taking, Henry said. The workers knew better than any owner could possibly suspect. If it meant continued dominion, the owners figured even this acquiescence might be worth embracing. Henry died about this time, leaving behind a daughter who fondly remembered Sunday drives where her soft-spoken father would uncharacteristically sing at the top of his lungs for hours. His voice went silent.

The owners promoted Henry's work, but changed it in the process. You see, lending too much credence to Henry's words might encourage unionization and workers' rights, so the owners started bestowing an annual Henry L. Gantt Award to owners who successfully subverted workers' rights, a practice nobody successfully opposed. They twisted Henry's work and his words to utterly subvert his work and his words. The budding Soviet State embraced Henry's work and imported legions of freshly-minted, starry-eyed engineers to fabricate the first Five Year Plan, a strategy that employed the very worse of The Patron's ideology and the very best perversion of Henry's work into a fresh means for utterly subjugating individual workers. All praise the almighty PR machine.

The Patron, of course, was Frederick Winslow Taylor, the so-called Father of Scientific Management, the man with the exponentially expanding legacy. His ideas, too, were twisted and co-opted by corporations to justify what they had always intended to do, anyway. What might have been understood as a misguided theory became accepted scientific fact, and who is anybody to question accepted scientific fact? Fact was and still is, that this particular scientific fact remains a public relations mirage, perhaps the most successfully deployed one in history so far. They used Henry's good name well into the sixties, awarding their Henry L. Gantt Award to a succession of industrialists who might have once thought themselves to be acting in their employees' best interests, but who never really deigned themselves quite lowly enough to actually sit down with them and listen, as Henry had done.

Now, of course, everyone knows how to misuse a Gantt Chart. It's part of every implementation of every project management tool kit ever marketed. Very few understand how to use them any better than the Soviets did when they concocted their first Five Year Plan, as an extension of authoritarian rule. Henry's story might serve as a cautionary tale for reformers of every sort. The old status quo remains powerful and insidious. One might be able to talk their way into their counsel without ever successfully managing to influence their self-reflexive world view. They will twist and turn whatever insight you might provide them into precisely what they had before. They cannot see beyond the door they already stand behind and consider deflecting any talk of improvement by liberation their sworn enemy. They might seem capable of affording any luxury in this world, but they cannot afford to find themselves wrong. They eagerly champion Illiberation, the utter subjugation of every individual contributor to the will of the machine.

©2018 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved









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