Thursday 25 April 2013

Let's Get It On

Andy Beckett's 'When the Lights Went Out' captures an interesting moment in history, when the right decided to organize itself along leftists lines, via collective effort, to crush the Grunwick strike. It appears that the victory of the right owed it success in the mid 70s to superior organization - the group efforts of the Grunwick-strike breakers, but also the creeping relevance of the neoliberal think tanks. I'm quite happy to be corrected on this, but to me organization is a big factor, and the left, at least from Beckett's book, comes across as increasingly disorganized and dysfunctional. Some of the ideas about organization that would help the right were emerging not just from the left, but from the world of industrial psychology.

Organization has always been something psychology has been concerned with. Some of the first major 'wins' for psychology as a science of organization were Charles Myers' work at Rowntrees in the 20s and 30s, and the foundation of modern psychology, Robert Yerkes' work screening recruits for the army just prior to WW1 (Yerkes' work is memorably demolished in Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man). Out of the tentative beginnings of industrial psychology came the personnel psychologist. In the 1950s, when an influx of GI-bill tutored psychologists came into the field, the personnel psychologist became a totemic figure of the 'organized society', which was the subject of many of the criticisms that would go on to create the counter-culture movement.

The personnel psychologist carried out many of the functions that would improve an organization: administering aptitude tests; making Taylorism-inspired efficiency savings; recomming training; and in general manage feedback. This was an application of scientific methodology that most businesses were grateful for: there were other services however, which were of even more value.

The union movement in America in the 60s and 70s was growing more powerful: civil rights actions had expanded the franchise of the unions and given them more power. Throughout this era the personnel psychologist, along with picking suitable applicants for job positions, had been rooting out potential union members as a valued service to capital and management. The personnel psychologists (Charles Hughes, author of 'Making Unions Unnecessary', and Nathan Shefferman, ) would create, much like forensic psychologists do of serial killers, profiles of potential union members and ditch any job applicants who matched them. They would also devise organizational structures resistant to unionization.

Of Shefferman's innovations an associate said: "We operate the exact way a union does...but on management's side. We give out leaflets, talk to employees, and organize a propaganda campaign.”

John Logan, labour historian:  "Between 1974 and 1984, one firm established by one industrial psychologist trained over 27,000 managers and supervisors to "make unions unnecessary" and surveyed almost one million employees in 4,000 organizations."

The tactics of industrial psychology, leftist organization, and advertising technique became blended into the right's efforts to start winning victories against the consensus. The logic of industrial psychology union-busting has always been described in terms that the solutionists of the late 2000s could appreciate: unions are illogical roadbumps to better, rational organization.

Unions are now shadows of their former selves and there isn't a lot for the personnel psychologist to do. Enforce happiness quotas, positivity, etc. Strangely a lot of them are now concerned with fighting figures more alien, more irrational than the unionists. Outsiders bent on major disorganization.



Paul Hebron said...

'“By this we reference what is now the dominant understanding in organizational management theory: decentralization of personal knowledge is the best way to maximize the contributions of people.” While the glorious decentralization of OWS was supposed to enact some academic theory of space-creating, the glorious decentralization of the Tea Party enacts the principles of the market; it enacts the latest in management theory; it enacts democracy itself.'

carl said...

OWS tasted overwhelmingly of one monotonous flavor: academia, with a subtle bouquet of career activism

ho ho

fascinating stuff actually..would be good to have more thinking along these lines that part of teh beckett book is key, innit. Significantly it is also not an incursion into discourse or an attempt to visibly occupy public space or reclaim the streets or prefigure a better social order etc but an invisible but highly destructive/constructive bit of social engineering... invisibility is the key, but that seems difficult when the overriding aim of so much "protest" is to give voice to/visibility to the marginalized etc...the logic of the spectacle...

and its just reminded me of something i keep meaning to post...