Trudinger on Personnel Management, Labour Control and the Mind of the Individual Worker

No more ‘the big stick ‘: Personnel Management, Labour Control and the Mind of the Individual Worker

Dave Trudinger

University of Sydney

Looking ahead: the subject of study

So much of the recent experience of higher education, it seems, has been based around crises; crises in various disciplines, in funding, in student fees, and so on. How refreshing it is, then, to be part of a conference that has chosen to focus on looking ahead. For a postgraduate student interested in developing marxist analysis and looking at labour history it is doubly refreshing for there can be no doubt that a similar perception of crises has dogged these modes of analysis, and like perhaps the conference organisers I want to focus on looking ahead.

The chapter from which this paper is extracted has as a core concern the articulations and actions of management in their attempts to define and control the relationship workers have to the processes of production. Through technologies of workplace regulation subjects are, in part, constituted; at the point of production; and for the purpose of production; bodies become inscribed as productive subjects. Therefore in general terms my study is concerned with the construction of subjectivity in the post-war Australian workplace. This paper also demonstrates that the economic and social conditions of Second World War and post-war Australia were conducive to the development of new technologies of workplace regulation. And that these find significant space for articulation and dispersal in the emergent discourse of personnel management; particularly as located in the management and newly formed personnel management journals, books and educational courses.

In the period of study, between the Second World War and 1972, workplace regulation did not remain static, on the contrary, it will be argued that a significant transition occurred; a transition whose relevance extends beyond workplace regulation into the construction and functioning of post-war subjectivities. This paper argues that from around the mid-1950s workplace regulation shifted emphasis from a more established technology of disciplining the individual and their body as a whole- this is termed the welfare paradigm- to a more intricate and more covert targeting of the identity and self-actualisation of workplace subjects; the mind of the worker. This transition in workplace technologies, it is argued, highlights a significant dynamic integral to the functioning of the capitalist mode of production and its social system. This dynamic is one that constantly seeks to obscure the operations and origins in labour of the production of value. (1) This transition also is influenced by and signposts fundamental post-war shifts in strategies enhancing capital’s social hegemony.

looking ahead: discourse and the interpretation of culture

The emphasis in my subject of study is on the discourse of personnel management. I am examining particular articulations – the techniques and utterances- of an influential group in the labour market and I do this because I argue that they had a fundamental role in conceptualising and attempting to direct the dynamics of the workplace. Personnel managers are also significant because they themselves formed a part of, and reflected, an emerging conception of society based around consensus and the so called ‘broad middle stratum ‘. What interests me about the post-war cultural landscape, including (in fact especially) the workplace, and what has directed my concern in exploring personnel management, is the different ways in which the economic and social system sought to build and direct the allegiances of its diverse population, and within this the oppositions and slippages around existing visions of society. Contrary to some of the concerns Brian Palmer expresses in Descent into Discourse that the importance of structural forces like class will be downplayed, I see in this study of discourse the greater possibilities of exposing the operations of class and other structures of power. (2) My point is not so much to measure influence, though this could be an important practice, instead it is to examine possible meanings and motivations as they related to the various forces that make up the social and political landscape of Australian society.

the welfare paradigm

Firstly, to establish some context, I might just remark that management in the interwar period remained extremely variegated and it was not until the wartime acceleration of industry and the post-war restructuring of Australian capitalism that the pre-war industrial and management trends finally sprang to life. Emergent trends particularly pertaining to the relationship between welfarist strategies and implementation of rationalist workplace practices were developing and debate and experimentation certainly existed. However, the possibilities for broad based implementation or domestic development were without coherent form. (3)

The significant economic factors compelling the development of personnel management during the Second World War are well indicated by the following comment from a personnel manager in 1968 looking back on the period:

It was an after-thought, but, during the war when there were so many young men away in the forces, the need to get the maximum benefit and maximum productivity out of the ones who remained called for management skill. So personnel management was born to help with maximum productivity during World War II; to stretch our limited resources… (4)

The contradictory movements of expanding demand for labour at a time of diminishing supply compelled capital and the state to address questions of production and productivity, workforce composition and workplace control. Demobilisation and high levels of immigration in the early post-war period added impetus to all these factors. Though not an entirely seamless juncture, the wartime and early post-war conditions had strong similarities.

One key result of the war and particularly early post-war labour market conditions was the increased relative power of workers. By 1945 workers were able to win a minimum two weeks annual leave, in 1947 the 40 hour per week case was won and above award wage benefits continued to expand. (5) As the prominent management consultant Walter Scott commented: The unions know at the present time that they have unusual power and they are seeking to make the most of it. (6)

Personnel management identified that capital was confronted with what one frustrated author referred to as refined Luditism . (7) The situation, according to this personnel manager, was stark:

With their experience of poverty and unemployment during the interwar years, it is exceedingly difficult to convince people that increased effort will in fact result in an increased standard of living, or that by following the advice of economists with their new fangled theories regarding the maintenance of total outlay it will be possible to arrive at high and stable employment. (8)

Clearly understood then, the organised power of labour had become a threat to production and labour control. The conditions, as they were articulated, provided determinative reasoning for a reconceptualisation of workplace regulation.

The emergence of the welfare paradigm in personnel management from these conditions may be understood in two ways. Firstly, it can be identified as a reaction to the specific demands of a newly powerful workforce to make working conditions more bearable. This ‘positive ‘ reaction meant locating the human in the workplace, acknowledging, in their words, the human needs of people in production . (9) The role of personnel management was articulated as ensuring scientific improvements to working conditions . (10)

The emphasis on working conditions as being a key determinant of worker welfare directed the activities of the occupation and so also the remedies that personnel management in effect implemented. Thus the wartime and early post-war discourse is generous in its emphasis on studies into lighting, problems of repetition in machine use, the provision of hygienic toilets and change room facilities, the impact of a colour scheme, the use of in house magazines, suggestion schemes, and canteens. (11)

Personnel management also took an active role in promoting the ‘carrot ‘ of consumption. Worker ‘s welfare could be reconceptualised by personnel management into welfare beyond the workplace, at the place of consumption. The promise of the commodity filled good life was transported into the workplace. The exceedingly popular, if overused, carrot and stick metaphor was redeployed to suit the early post-war expectations:

It is now commonly said that both the stick and the carrot have lost their efficacy. We know the difference between the power contained in the old admonition if thou dost not work, thou shalt not eat as against the present if you don ‘t work, you won ‘t starve, but you won ‘t be able to buy a refrigerator . (12)

Without the capacity, or the desire, to alter the existing ownership of production or the fundamental practices of production, personnel management mobilised significant welfare concessions in response to the very material expansion in the power of labour. In this way the development of personnel management in war and early post-war Australia can be represented as an achievement made at the expense of capital.

Without necessarily contradicting this perspective, the emergence of the welfare paradigm can secondly be identified as part of a systematic attempt to maintain and extend control of the production process. In this sense the wartime formation and development of personnel management can be ascribed to a strategy by capital in response to the power of labour; a response that subtly and not so subtly sought to tighten control over the production process, and dissipated the power of workers.

A sense of this strategy is well revealed by the following comment from Myer Kangan, a prominent figure in the Industrial Welfare Division of the Department of Labour and National Service:

The full employment era has thrown the problem of maintaining discipline into sharp relief. Employees are too hard to attract and to hold to dispense with their services lightly and this has considerably modified the use of the ‘big stick ‘ as a disciplinary measure. Thus supervisors are now encouraged to adopt a positive approach to disciplinary problems. This is probably one of the main reasons for ‘human relations ‘ having gained so prominent a place in training courses for supervisors. (13)

The relationship of the welfare paradigm, Kangan’s ‘human relations’, to ensuring the maximisation of efficiency was openly acknowledged and endorsed as ‘good practice ‘ for personnel managers. As one author explained: Good personnel practice enables the most efficient use to be made of available labour resources and helps smooth out the human difficulties that cause lags in production. (14)

Working conditions and welfare were each one side of a two sided equation. The core problematic facing the discourse of personnel management and from which the welfare approach emerged revolved around reconceptualising the workplace such that efficiency and the imperative of profit could be intimately tied to the concessions of welfare for newly powerful workers. Viewed in this light the welfare approach remains a reaction forced by the relative power of labour, however it is understood as a response which entrenched the position of labour as subordinate to the demands of efficiency.

The duality evident in this post-war situation confirms the identification, by some recent scholarship, of interactions and interdependencies between welfare strategies and attempts to impose greater managerial control over the workplace (usually represented under the rubric of scientific management). Wendy Hollway’s brief exploration of post-First World War management in the United Kingdom and, more recently, Lucy Taksa’s explorations of the railway yards of First World War and inter-war Eveleigh, NSW, are two important examples of studies that have developed- if only briefly- new understandings of the strategies for the diffusion of scientific management. (15) By breaking down the expressed motivations for the emergence of the welfare approach in war and early post-war personnel management into two key components, reaction and response, the intricate functioning of welfarism as a strategy encouraging entrenchment of rationalised work practices percolates through the examination of workplace regulation. The study of post-war personnel management, by emphasising the interactions and not the contradictions of welfare and rationalist practices, creates a context for the examination of new, more interior strategies of control and consensus.

A transition into the mind of the individual worker

History need not be presented as occurring in neat boxes: at its outset, within the welfare paradigm and the conditions that created it were the possibilities for transition. I want to move now not to consider the reasons for this transition, its origins, but instead go straight to examining its meanings.

From the mid 1950s onwards there is a discernible shift in the target of regulation away from the individual body and the worker as a whole; this transition starts with a call for, in their words, a more complex explanation of the complex motives that makes people work (16) and develops into an explicit emphasis on the psychological needs of the worker and their motivations:

We have perhaps been deluded said one experienced personnel manager in 1969, into believing that the objective of personnel management was to make the employee happy in his work when all the time we should have been trying to make him happy with his work, which is a different matter entirely. (17)

In short the discourse of personnel managements developed a new primary target of regulation, one which indicated a movement inwards away from the conditions of work into the mind of the worker. The purpose for profit and efficiency of personnel management was now unhesitant. The concepts of ‘satisfaction’ and ‘motivation’, adopted from behavioural science and psychology, became central features.

Said one personnel manager:

man lives for bread alone only when there is no bread. But a man whose stomach is satisfied by a secure supply of food becomes conscious of other needs. And in our society where unemployment has been unknown for 25 years or so people require things additional to an adequate wage to give them all the satisfaction they want from work. (18)

These ‘other needs ‘ led, as well, to different approaches and techniques. Recruitment which had been, in the early period, the staple task of personnel managers moved from highly simplistic categorisations of suitability and various regimes of classification to the advocating of psychological tests for vocational guidance. Such that frequently various typologies of workers were promoted and dysfunctional workers were recommended to take counselling where

[the worker] will be in a better position to change his attitude and behaviour with a view to making a better adjustment to his job and his environment, and developing his potential abilities both in his own and the organisation ‘s interests. (19)

The meshing of what was referred to as ‘organisational objectives ‘ with personal objectives was a key feature of the developing approach that personnel managers took from the mid 1950s. In conceptualising their work and the target of regulation as the mind of the worker personnel management sought not just to ‘discover ‘ what motivated, but also to actively create the characteristics of motivation. Work- which was now performed in organisations, not factories or offices- would be enhanced by the creation of productive subjects who, like their ‘organisations ‘, had the personal objectives of profit and success. As one personnel manager proselytised- and indeed the discourse did at times verge on the evangelical:

In the end, what matters is our individual attitude to work itself, our belief in success, in productivity and in profitability, our interest in our products, our loyalty to our employers, our fellow men and, above all, our self-reliance, and our search for fulfilment. (20)

The target for regulation was, quite clearly, the subjectivity of the worker. Conditions of labour and the pursuit of company ‘objectives ‘ are naturalised and indeed, in the discourse of personnel management, labour relations as they existed in post-war Australian capitalism-far from being the requirement of capital to ensure continued profit- becomes a human need.

Capital was attempting to create its own agents.

Personnel management in the post-war social context

The transition in target from the body of the worker as a whole, to the mind of the worker in the discourse of personnel management has, I would argue, many broader and interesting cultural implications. Prior to concluding I will signpost some of these:

Though there may have been a decline of the idea that employees are merely ‘hands ‘ (21) , as personnel management stepped away from the language of disembodied worker-limbs, which characterised scientific management, the workplace was nevertheless fractured into individual human units. The basic social unit was the individual.

A significant element to this was open hostility to workers acting collectively, particularly through trade unions. The articulations of personnel management with regards to industrial relations provides an insight into their representation of how society should function. Here is an example:

[t]oo often do we divide those in industry into management on the one hand and employees on the other and consider all the problems of industrial relations in terms of this division. Too rarely do we think of an industrial organisation as a society made up of many different types of persons with different attitudes and different contributions, and so see industrial relations problems as problems in the proper functioning of that society as a whole. (22)

In such and similar comments I observe a potential relationship to a consumer based social order which validates individual market like interactions and which dissipates sites of collective resistance- particular those based around class.

If consumption acts as a motivating force in compelling allegiance to the workplace, as some of the comments in this paper from personnel managers have indicated, then quite obviously space is created for a deeper study of developments in the reconceptualisation of need in post-war society. This clearly also relates to the cultivation of the secular self and the positioning of the nuclear family and the domestic as a consumption place/identity. Though consumption has been a frame of reference to cultural studies of the post-war world, particularly in the context of domesticity or sexuality and banally in the context of advertising there has been little exploration of the important relationship either to work or away from a class conscious subjectivity.

¥ To some extent the very emphasis on the embodied individual in the discourse of personnel management was also functional to the on going viability of the profession that nurtured that discourse. The worker was knowable, the working conditions quantifiable, so a role is prised open. In this decisive move to know and to control the worker, momentum is created to ensure the practice and prominence of the profession. So one could examine the operations of the discourse from the perspective of professionalisation and discipline development.

¥ I also see implications from the perspectives of gender- particularly relations between men. Wendy Hollway has argued in the English context that management control in the UK equivalent of the welfare paradigm just after the First World War was at conflict with all men ‘s constructed valuing of dominance and control in patriarchy. She argues that the ‘loss of control ‘ in the workplace and the conflict this caused between and within men was a principal dynamic directing change to a management system that allowed more space for self-actualisation within a patriarchal context. Instead of understanding the developments as a movement only in class relations we can also usefully employ gender as a force constructing the post-war workplace and its subjects. (23)

¥ More ambitiously perhaps, and combining all these perspectives, it could be argued that in this transition we can see some of the roots of a broader movement in the nature and operations of consent and control in post-war capitalism; the results of which we are still witnessing in our neo-liberal relaxed and comfortable 1990s. Its a broad brush stroke, one that is derivative of a discussion by the philosopher and Paris ’68 veteran Deleuze entitled ‘Postscript on Control Societies ‘, it is a brush stroke which identifies a movement away from technologies of discipline- of the Discipline and Punish type- based on confinement, analogical control, factories and the mass; to technologies of control working more on the interiors of subjects, commodifying the entire social space, freeing and enslaving in the one instance such that distinctions between agency and structure become disturbingly imperceptible. (24) The self-actualised worker advocated and inspiring the personnel manager certainly appears to resonate with this analysis.


As indicated at the start of this paper, what I am interested in exploring is the political imperatives behind the construction of post-war subjectivity; and within this I consider the workplace and work, and the perspectives of marxist and labour historians on the imperatives of the productive system as far too significant an area to ignore. Concurrently I concur with some emphasis on the examination of discourse and subject construction, for as Foucault states:

[though] it is largely as a force of production that the body is invested with relations of power and domination… its constitution as labour power [on the other hand] is possible only if it is caught up in a system of subjection (in which need is also a political instrument meticulously prepared, calculated and used); the body becomes a useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body. (25)

In the discourse of personnel management historians can observe changing processes aimed exactly at the generation of ‘useful bodies’, bodies with subjectivities integrated into a capitalist system of production. In breaking down the meanings and motivations of this discourse a more cohesive mapping of the intersections of power spread throughout the society can be made. Such questioning, from a materialist perspective, can also recognise that subjectivity is not ahistorical, that it is based on negotiation with fluctuating conditions of power which operate both negatively but also positively, and that the interpretation of culture is likewise complex – but also potently expressive. Criticisms of being reductive or totalising are addressed and the persistence of some historians in sending out cultural postcards from the past that do not incorporate some analysis of power as it materially operates and that do not have some political point of their own can be effectively questioned.

In this spirit I shall end with a quotation that perhaps captures the possibilities labour historians and historians generally need to acknowledge if their work can look ahead to being both politically relevant and theoretically responsive:

Now labour history is forever open to reinterpretation; it is a mental discipline that never stands still, and one into which each additional period gives rise to a multiplicity of considerations which cover the ultimate social result. (26)

This quotation was written by a labour historian some forty years ago, in 1958.