A view from my desk: In this series of personal essays, discover the questions and thoughts from the world of work that keep our writers up at night.
It’s a beautiful Monday in Amite County, Mississippi, perhaps most of all for Eli Capell, whose business has performed the best it’s “ever done in a day”. He knows this, of course, thanks to his habit of meticulous record-keeping, tracking output the way any business owner has an interest in doing. He is particularly content with his top performers—Terry, Isaac and Peter—who each contributed over 200lb of cotton to the 2,545lb picked by the enslaved African Americans on Pleasant Hill plantation on October 10, 1842.
…on the whole, management since the time of plantation slavery has not changed shape as much as we like to think.
Whether you’re a seasoned manager or, like me, just starting your career, you will know that the vast majority of employers track and analyse anything that can be put into numbers. To many, this is what modern-day management is all about. But how modern are these management methods, if several of them were developed on the slave plantations of antebellum America and the West Indies?
The tools may have changed, and you and I, luckily, do not work for free, in fear, or without our consent. But on the whole, management since the time of plantation slavery has not changed shape as much as we like to think. In fact, it has been hyper-optimised to achieve the same results: producing more, quickly and cheaply.
I am not equating modern managers to slave drivers. I am saying that plantation owners knew that to be successful, they had to resort to more creative methods than brute violence alone. And these management methods continue to exist in our capitalist system today.
Tracking productivity, one individual at a time
Capell was far from alone in keeping detailed daily records. Through data drawn from 114 plantations between 1801 and 1862, Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode show that the practice was widespread. And it went further than tracking total output and profits: individual productivity was closely monitored as well.
Alabama plantation owner James Tait recorded picking tasks for individual slaves based on age, gender and health. In her book, Accounting for Slavery, Caitlin Rosenthal writes that plantation owner Francis Terry Leak of Mississippi listed the daily results of each of his slaves. His journal contained thousands of data points per picking season. Thomas Walter Peyre tracked time lost to sickness and pregnancies among his slaves. His South Carolina plantation journal reads “like a lab notebook”. Thousands of volumes of similar account books survive.
…everything I did on my work computer was tracked, from break times to mouse clicks.
The parallels with today are not difficult to see. All organisations collect and process productivity data, including at the level of the individual. When I worked in a restaurant chain, pay would be docked for clocking in (or out) just a minute too late (or early). As a customer service rep for a major financial services firm, everything I did on my work computer was tracked, from break times to mouse clicks.
A 2008 survey found that a third of companies with 1,000 or more employees had staff who read through workers’ outbound emails. Today, demand for employee-tracking tools appears to be going up. Firms that develop time-tracking software for remote employees sayinterest from prospective clients has increased between 200 and 600% since Covid-19 pushed many people from the office to the home.
A long-standing managerial obsession with data collection
In 1847, after noticing that plantation owners all kept records in different ways, Thomas Affleck published the first Plantation Record and Account Book. This made it easy to compare accounts—daily records of cotton picked, slave births, deaths, illnesses and more—across different plantations. His book was popular: eight editions of it circulated until the US Civil War.
The global data management market is expected to be worth USD 135 billion by 2025.
Affleck’s fixation on data preceded the better-known practice of ‘scientific management’, developed by Frederick Taylor in the early 20th century. Taylor used numbers to help employers manage ‘lazy workers’—those who wanted “to do the least amount of work in the longest amount of time”. While the term ‘scientific management’ has fallen out of fashion, managers’ appetite for data has only grown. The global data management market is expected to be worth USD 135 billion by 2025. Some might go so far as to speak of a “tyranny of metrics”.
Data was especially useful for absentee slave owners, who did not live on or manage their plantation directly. They relied on regular reports from their staff on the ground. Such reporting only became more important as capitalism and globalisation further removed managers from the ‘field’. Remove ‘slave’ and replace ‘plantation’, and we may as well be talking about executives poring over numbers in a modern boardroom in London or New York.
Beyond collection: data-driven strategies
As any good manager knows, data only truly has value if you do something with it. This is why present-day managers are tasked with using data to revise targets, identify patterns, make projections and optimise expenses.
Slave owners used similar data-driven strategies. For example, Francis Terry Leak used his data to analyse the impacts of manure, seed varieties, the weather and labour productivity on his yearly output. He then turned his analyses into projections for the years ahead.
Today, we simply call similar efforts ‘strategic analysis’.
Meanwhile, Thomas Walter Peyre conducted data-based experiments on how best to grow the potatoes needed to feed his workforce “from August 29 to December 17”. His goal? Minimising the cost of feeding his slaves during picking season, to transform the least amount of potatoes into maximum profit.
Today, we simply call similar efforts ‘strategic analysis’.
Management through hierarchy
It is here that middle management was truly born.
While it was easy to weigh each slave’s end-of-day output on the cotton plantations of the American South, the story was a bit different over in the West Indies, where sugar was the big business. Sugar production required an enormous workforce and an extensive division of labour. Productivity was more complex to track here. In The Sugar Masters, Richard Follet documents the importance of supervision and coordination over individual monitoring.
…the level of hierarchical complexity seen at some plantations was *“equalled only by large government structures like that of the British Royal Navy”.
It is here, rather than in the factories of the early Industrial Era, that we find the first experiments with assembly-line production, work shifts and subdivisions of tasks. It is here that middle management was truly born.
In The 1619 Project, The New York Times notes that the level of hierarchical complexity seen at some plantations was “equalled only by large government structures like that of the British Royal Navy”. Today, middle managers are still seen by businesses as important innovators, perfectly positioned to report on and stimulate performance. In 2014, there were 23.8 million middle managers in the US alone—one for every 4.7 employees.
Then and now: a question of control
Physical violence went hand in hand with the soft power of numbers.
Plantation slavery evokes gruesome images of whipping, sexual violence, coercion, deprivation. And it should: there are undeniable and horrid links between violence and productivity on plantations. The pain and consequences of slavery, visible and invisible, are still felt today.
…plantations were largely managed in ways we usually consider to be ‘modern’.
But the bottom line is this: it would not have made good business sense to manage slaves through arbitrary abuse alone. Physical violence went hand in hand with the soft power of numbers. From productivity tracking and data collection to data-driven analysis and complex hierarchies: plantations were largely managed in ways we usually consider to be modern.
The core impulse—squeezing out maximum productivity at a minimal cost—is the same.
It paid off. Cotton production quadrupled between 1800 and 1860. As any 21st-century management guru will tell you, such growth is unlikely without innovation. Agricultural innovation certainly played a role. But given the completely unregulated control slave drivers had over their labour force, it was easier for them than for their counterparts in the budding railroad and manufacturing industries to innovate with management practices as well.
The means—data, worker surveillance and organisational structure—are the same.
If we can move past the discomfort of drawing parallels between modern management and plantation slavery, we can start to consider how many modern businesses continue to benefit from control over their workforce. The core impulse—squeezing out maximum productivity at a minimal cost—is the same. The means—data, worker surveillance and organisational structure—are the same. And, when reminded of, for example, the gruelling working conditions at Amazon warehouses or the factory that collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013, killing 1,134 workers, we may ask ourselves if the emotional distance between upper management and workers is not quite the same, too.
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