A Wrong Turn

Download: MOLOCH: Mass-Production Industry as a Statist Construct.

I. The Origins of Sloanist Mass Production

A Fork in the Road
A Wrong Turn
The Role of the State in Tipping the Balance

II. The Institutional Imperatives of Sloanism

Economies of Scale, Economies of Speed, and Push Distribution
Microeconomic Institutional Forms for Providing Stability
Mass Consumption to Absorb Surplus
Political Capitalism
State Action to Absorb Surplus: Imperialism
State Action to Absorb Surplus: Creation of New Industries

III. Conclusion

The natural course of things, according to Borsodi, was that the “process of shifting production from the home and neighborhood to the distantly located factory” would have peaked with “the perfection of the reciprocating steam-engine,” and then leveled off until the invention of the electric motor reversed the process and enabled families and local producers to utilize the powered machinery previously restricted to the factory. [9] But it didn’t happen that way.

Michael Piore and Charles Sabel described a fork in the road, based on which of two possible alternative ways was chosen for incorporating electrical power into manufacturing. The first, more in keeping with the unique potential of the new technology, was to integrate electrically powered machinery into small-scale craft production: “a combination of craft skill and flexible equipment,” or “mechanized craft production.”

Its foundation was the idea that machines and processes could augment the craftsman’s skill, allowing the worker to embody his or her knowledge in ever more varied products: the more flexible the machine, the more widely applicable the process, the more it expanded the craftsman’s capacity for productive expression.

The other was to adapt electrical machinery to the preexisting framework of paleotechnic industrial organization — in other words, what was to become twentieth century mass-production industry. This latter alternative entailed breaking the production process down into its separate steps, and then substituting extremely expensive and specialized machinery for human skill. “The more specialized the machine — the faster it worked and the less specialized its operator needed to be — the greater its contribution to cutting production costs. [10]

The first path, unfortunately, was for the most part the one not taken; it has been followed only in isolated enclaves, particularly in the assorted industrial districts in Europe. The resurgence of relocalized, networked production in the latter days of Sloanist mass production — most notably in Toyota’s network of suppliers, and in Emilia-Romagna and the rest of the “Third Italy” — was based on a resurrected version of the first path.

The second, mass-production model became the dominant form of industrial organization. Neotechnic advances like electrically powered machinery, which offered the potential for decentralized production and were ideally suited to a fundamentally different kind of society, have so far been integrated into the framework of mass production industry.

Mumford argued that the neotechnic advances, rather than being used to their full potential as the basis for a new kind of economy, were instead incorporated into a paleotechnic framework. Neotechnic had not “displaced the older regime” with “speed and decisiveness,” and had not yet “developed its own form and organization.” Mumford used Spengler’s idea of the “cultural pseudomorph” to illustrate the process: “…in geology… a rock may retain its structure after certain elements have been leached out of it and been replaced by an entirely different kind of material. Since the apparent structure of the old rock remains, the new product is called a pseudomorph.”

A similar metamorphosis is possible in culture: new forces, activities, institutions, instead of crystallizing independently into their own appropriate forms, may creep into the structure of an existing civilization…. As a civilization, we have not yet entered the neotechnic phase…. [W]e are still living, in Matthew Arnold’s words, between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born. [11]

Emerging from the paleotechnic order, the neotechnic institutions have nevertheless in many cases compromised with it, given way before it, lost their identity by reason of the weight of vested interests that continued to support the obsolete instruments and the anti-social aims of the middle industrial era.

Paleotechnic ideals still largely dominate the industry and the politics of the Western World…. To the extent that neotechnic industry has failed to transform the coal-and-iron complex, to the extent that it has failed to secure an adequate foundation for its humaner technology in the community as a whole, to the extent that it has lent its heightened powers to the miner, the financier, the militarist, the possibilities of disruption and chaos have increased. [12]

True: the industrial world produced during the nineteenth century is either technologically obsolete or socially dead. But unfortunately, its maggoty corpse has produced organisms which in turn may debilitate or possibly kill the new order that should take its place: perhaps leave it a hopeless cripple. [13]

The new machines followed, not their own pattern, but the pattern laid down by previous economic and technical structures. [14]

The fact is that in the great industrial areas of Western Europe and America…, the paleotechnic phase is still intact and all its essential characteristics are uppermost, even though many of the machines it uses are neotechnic ones or have been made over — as in the electrification of railroad systems — by neotechnic methods. In this persistence of paleotechnics… we continue to worship the twin deities, Mammon and Moloch…. [15]

We have merely used our new machines and energies to further processes which were begun under the auspices of capitalist and military enterprise: we have not yet utilized them to conquer these forms of enterprise and subdue them to more vital and humane purposes…. [16]

Not alone have the older forms of technics served to constrain the development of the neotechnic economy: but the new inventions and devices have been frequently used to maintain, renew, stabilize the structure of the old social order…. [17]

The present pseudomorph is, socially and technically, third-rate. It has only a fraction of the efficiency that the neotechnic civilization as a whole may possess, provided it finally produces its own institutional forms and controls and directions and patterns. At present, instead of finding these forms, we have applied our skill and invention in such a manner as to give a fresh lease of life to many of the obsolete capitalist and militarist institutions of the older period. Paleotechnic purposes with neotechnic means: that is the most obvious characteristic of the present order. [18]

For Mumford, Soviet Russia was a mirror image of the capitalist West in shoehorning neotechnic technology into a paleotechnic institutional framework. Despite the neotechnic promise of Lenin’s “electrification plus Soviet power,” the Soviet aesthetic ideal was that of the Western mass-production factory: “the worship of size and crude mechanical power, and the introduction of a militarist technique in both government and industry….” [19]


9. Ralph Borsodi, Prosperity and Security (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1938), p. 182.

10. Michael J. Piore and Charles F. Sabel, The Second Industrial Divide: Possibilities for Prosperity (New York:
HarperCollins, 1984), pp. 4-6, 19.

11. Mumford, Technics and Civilization, p. 265.

12. Ibid., pp. 212-13.

13. Ibid., p. 215.

14. Ibid., p. 236.

15. Ibid., p. 264.

16. Ibid., p. 265.

17. Ibid., p. 266.

18. Ibid., p. 267.

19. Ibid., p. 264.

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