Not so long ago, I found myself lightly commiserating with a lunch partner over the last days of a longtime colleague. He wasn’t dying. He had merely outlived his usefulness. For decades he had filled a role that at some point had been deemed essential, but the world had moved on. Needs, circumstances, the wonder workings of modern technology—all of them had conspired with the passage of time to make this aging gentleman, well, dispensable.

It was a humiliating conclusion, but what clearly angered our colleague was less the verdict than the fact that it appeared arbitrary and beyond appeal. The judgment seemed as if it had been handed down by no one in particular, and no one, it seemed, was interested in the particulars of his case. Our colleague was being carried along by the tide of events, and to resist them in the way rational beings might—to present evidence, to make a case, to advocate for better wisdom or, if that failed, to appeal for hard-earned clemency—appeared as hopeful to him as arguing with a landslide.

I was taken aback by his fate—poor man, he seemed so small and helpless—but my lunch partner took something of a philosophical perspective. Yes, it was too bad about what was happening to our colleague, but years before she had learned a lesson about complex organizations that she had taken to heart as a salve and a survival strategy: the company does not care about you.

A cog in a complex machine

Indifference is a moral reality of any well-functioning bureaucracy. It is a feature, not a bug, as well as a consequence of the guiding logic of capitalist advancement, that every one of us should be a cog in a complex machine.

The imperative has its origins in the division of labor, what Adam Smith hailed as “the greatest improvement in the productive powers of labor.” Key to this development, Smith wrote, was “the improvement of the dexterity of the workman,” which “necessarily increases the quantity of the work he can perform” by “reducing every man’s business to some one simple operation.”

The insight is evident to anyone who has ever watched a Hall of Fame pitcher take a sorry turn at bat. Whether on the factory line or in Fenway Park, when it comes to manual labor, we tend to be most potent when we are only assigned a single task. And yet, the price of such precision can be high—painfully high, in fact. “Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools,” the social critic John Ruskin wrote at the height of the Industrial Revolution in The Stones of Venice. “If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them.”

Smith had famously admitted as much nearly 75 years earlier. The “understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments,” he observed. Therefore, the “man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations” has “no occasion to exert his understanding,” with the result that he “generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”

The lives of wage workers more and more resembled those of caged monkeys who hit the right button to receive a banana.

Such an eventuality was hardly desirable, but it led Smith to propose public education as a remedy for an epidemic of idiocy rather than Ruskin’s preferred choice, the rollback of the division of labor. The drawbacks were indisputable, but the advantages of hyperspecialized work were so great that the alternatives for Smith were not merely impractical—to pursue them would be utter folly. Modern industry produced goods that made our lives not only bearable but comfortable and humane. All things considered, we should be so lucky as to find our place along the factory line.

Ruskin was unconvinced. Like most critics, he focused on the anatomical indignities of the division of labor. It transformed human beings “into leathern thongs to yoke machinery with,” he said. But the very phenomenon of fracturing work processes into ever smaller components tended to “unhumanize” labor in other ways as well. Whereas an honest day’s work once comprised a series of discrete activities that ultimately congealed into some salable good—a ham shank, perhaps, or hobnailed boots—increasingly individuals found their labor reduced to some repetitive gesture whose crude simplicity stood in shocking contrast to an unfathomably elaborate industrial setting. The lives of wage workers more and more resembled those of caged monkeys who hit the right button to receive a banana. Attending their own buttons six days a week, 12 hours a day, for as many times as the production process demanded resulted in goods whose creation was as much a mystery to them as to those who consumed them. These men and women and, yes, even children knew little of the financial interests behind the business or the logic of its organization or even the basic features of the machines they worked with. Heck, they barely had any idea what went on just a few feet from their stations. They simply attended the tasks they were assigned amidst a clamor of pneumatic sighs and clanging steel that, like some infernal orchestra, formed the symphony of commercial creation.

The ideal of ignorance

Far from being lamented, such ignorance was widely embraced. In The Principles of Scientific Management, the foundational text of management consulting, first published in 1911, Frederick Winslow Taylor treated it as a central assumption that “in almost all of the mechanic arts the science which underlies each act of each workman is so great and amounts to so much that the workman who is best suited to actually do the work is incapable of fully understanding this science.” Taylor straightforwardly assumed that most manual laborers were simply not smart enough to appreciate the science of industry. (In an infamous aside, he declared that an “intelligent gorilla” might be preferable for some of the most “crude and elementary” tasks in a factory setting.) Yet even among those employees with an aptitude for understanding how their daily endeavors fit within the broader work of the factory, such knowledge was simply unnecessary. They did not need to know the whys and the wherefores of the work they did. Indeed, the very aim of “scientific management” was to elaborate and institute work protocols whose wisdom and efficiency reflected state-of-the-art industrial standards. Workers merely needed to follow the procedures they were assigned. To spend any more time defending them was as pointless and wasteful as justifying a hammer to a nail.

Such a high-handed approach surely offends our egalitarian sympathies, but it’s useful nonetheless to distinguish Taylor’s low opinion of factory hands from the assumptions about contemporary work that supported it. As Smith himself observed, the more work resembles the reliable movements of some simple mechanism, the more productive we are individually and the more efficient our collective efforts. It wasn’t, therefore, that the opinions of one particular set of workers proved a hindrance. Any prerogatives of individuality—whether creative, intellectual, moral, or merely parochial in nature—were disadvantageous.

Ignorance was therefore not only inevitable among workers in the face of breathtaking commercial advancements; from the standpoint of efficiency, it was ideal. Once the science of some task had been established, nothing should stand between it and the work at hand. As the economist Thorstein Veblen declared not long after Taylor, the “industrial arts” are “governed by the same logic as the scientific laboratories.” Thus, “it is of the first importance to eliminate the ‘personal equation,’ to let the work go forward and let the forces at work take effect quite objectively, without hindrance or deflection for any personal end, interest, or gain.”

Veblen specifically had in mind the personal ends of those would-be robber barons whose chief interest was diverting as much profit as possible into their bank accounts, but achieving the ideal of industrial decision-making was not limited to rooting out individual cupidity. To truly eliminate the personal equation involved a workplace design in which most elements of individual expressiveness—whimsy, flair, eccentricity, audacity, experimentation, conviction—were suppressed in favor of conformity and strict routine.

What such a requirement entailed for the industrial armies staffing the factory line was fairly straightforward—so many widgets in so many hours in precisely such a way. But what about for those who organized, oversaw, and ultimately managed them, the white-collar workers who manned the levers of the human mind rather than the stations of a conveyor belt?

Alfred P. Sloan Jr. famously took up this matter in My Years with General Motors, a mid-century memoir of his 25 years as the chief executive of the largest company the world had ever known. An engineer by training, the celebrated CEO shared Veblen’s technocratic bent, which stood in sharp contrast to William Durant, the cofounder of GM and its president until 1920, when Sloan succeeded him.

The org chart captured with clinical precision the white-collar counterpart to the factory line: the bureaucratic hierarchy.

In My Years with General Motors, Durant served as something of a foil for the approach to corporate management his former right-hand man famously commended. Sloan admitted that he found his boss “a very persuasive man” who “inspired confidence in his character and ability,” but that he was “too casual in his ways for an administrator.” Sloan cited two episodes as evidence. One involved the revelation that, as late as 1919, GM had no one independently auditing its books. (“Mr. Durant did not have a sound concept of accounting,” Sloan noted, “and did not realize its great significance in administration.”) The other episode detailed Durant’s impulsiveness when choosing the land for a new office building in Detroit. Pointing to a block of buildings that sat on his preferred site, he confidently told Sloan to acquire the parcel at “whatever” price he saw fit. Sloan didn’t share his boss’s enthusiasm. (“I wasn’t in the real estate business,” he curtly observed. “I didn’t even live in Detroit.”)

Durant’s “informal ways of doing business” clearly unnerved Sloan. It also created an untenable situation for Durant when the economy slumped shortly after the end of World War I, and the habit of individual automotive divisions to spend without much in the way of company-wide coordination came back to haunt him. Durant had been taking out loans as a budgetary stopgap and using his own stock as collateral, a decision whose precarity was heightened by the fact that Durant himself had no exact idea how much he owed. (“Mr. Durant stated that he had no personal books or accounts,” Sloan recalled, “and was wholly unable to give definite statements as to the total indebtedness.”)

The org chart

When Sloan became the president of GM after a consortium of major shareholders showed Durant the exit, his remedy was to implement a company-wide regime of what he called coordinated control and decentralized power. It made for an awkward balance, he granted, but one whose “very contradiction is the crux of the matter.” The arrangement is famously illustrated by the chart Sloan included in My Years with General Motors showing his organizational redesign. A pyramid of independent cells (“Hyatt Bearings Div.,” “Patent Dept.,” “Federal Taxes”) joined by a network of arteries, the org chart captured with clinical precision the white-collar counterpart to the factory line: the bureaucratic hierarchy.

Sloan certainly did not invent bureaucracy, but his memoir is a paean to its possibilities. In a spirit both scientific and slightly admonitory, the German sociologist Max Weber wrote about them not long before him. “Bureaucracy rests upon expert training,” he observed, “a functional specialization of work, and an attitude set for habitual and virtuoso-like mastery of single yet methodically integrated functions.” The upshot of such expert training represents something of a psychological complement to the aerobic regimens required of manual labor. It involves not only a disciplined commitment to a single function but the acceptance of strictly limited horizons. (I would know in detail what went on in my office, but I wouldn’t have the faintest idea what anyone did a few doors over.)

Another famous sociologist, C. Wright Mills, similarly described those who are part of what he called “the bureaucratic formula”:

[They] follow clearly defined lines of authority, each of which is related to other lines, and all related to the understood purposes of the enterprise as a going concern. Their activities and feelings are within delimited spheres of action, set by the obligations and requirements of their own ‘expertese.’ Their power is neatly seated in the office they occupy and derived only from that office; all their relations within the enterprise are thus impersonal and set by the formal hierarchical structure.

Wright granted that this “description” was a “rational caricature,” but for him it well described what it meant to be a “cog” in the “bureaucratic machinery.” For this, of course, is the ultimate goal of organizational management in any complex enterprise and what Sloan’s chart finally captures, the creation of an extraordinary human machine made up of interchangeable parts in which every person, even the figure at the very top, is eminently dispensable.

The mark of success

In his own writing on bureaucracy, Weber told a story about Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian statesman whose many accomplishments included the unification of Germany in 1871 and nearly two decades of service as its first chancellor. “During the course of his long years in power,” Weber wrote, “Bismarck brought his ministerial colleagues into unconditional bureaucratic dependence by eliminating all independent statesmen.” And yet, “upon his retirement, he saw to his surprise that they continued to manage their offices unconcerned and undismayed, as if he had not been the master mind and creator of these creatures, but rather as if some single figure had been exchanged for some other figure in the bureaucratic machine.”

The world moved on, it seems, even for Otto von Bismarck. He was as much an interchangeable part as anyone else. And while it may have been a shock to him that the institution he built didn’t care about him—even him!—on some level he must have known there was no greater mark of its strength and no surer omen of its continued success than the sheer fact of such serene indifference.

John Paul Rollert is adjunct assistant professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth.

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