Deconstructing Management Science: Introducing the Self-Management Notes Project

Managers supervise a time and motion study.
Managers supervise a time and motion study.

All radical theorists worth their salt start with the self-activity of the working class. Through Mary Burns, an Irish worker he met in Manchester, Friedrich Engels discovered the working class. Years later, Karl Marx drafted a workers’ inquiry to gain “an exact and positive” knowledge of French workers. Throughout the twentieth century, revolutionaries of all stripes tried to discover the composition of working class by leafleting the factory gates with questionnaires, conducting interviews with workers, and even finding jobs at workplaces. The point, of course, was not just to better understand working life, but to learn how to appropriately intervene in the political struggles unfolding all around them. For many of these groups, such as Socialisme ou Barbarie or the Italian workerists, socialist theory and strategy, even the very content of socialist project itself, could only be derived from the everyday experiences of the working class.

In some cases, capitalists conducted their own “worker inquiries,” albeit for the exact opposite purposes – maintaining better control of the workforce, increasing production, and quashing dissent. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Hawthorne Studies famously interviewed 20,000 workers to uncover social relationships at the workplace.1 More recently, an important management theory published in 2007 named the “inner work life theory” developed its conclusions from collecting diary entries recorded in a standardized format from 238 professionals working in 26 project teams. 12,000 diary entries were then analysed to reveal what the researchers termed “The Reality Management Never Sees.”2 There are many other theories derived from these methods. A striking example of the similarities between the workers’ inquiry of radicals and management investigations can be seen in Jamie Woodcock’s inquiry into call centers, where he discovered that an “undercover boss” was busy researching the very same workplace in which his inquiry was taking place. This idea of an undercover boss is now something that has been worked into a reality television show in the United Kingdom, and there will soon be close to 16 versions internationally.

It should be no surprise, then, that the same revolutionaries who inquired into the working class also pored over management literature. After all, Marx not only read the bourgeois political economists, he spent years reading blue books at the British Museum. In the 1950s, Socialisme ou Barbarie militants engaged with industrial sociology, took account of time and motion studies, and studied management techniques. Obviously this knowledge could not replace that acquired directly from the working class itself, but it was never discounted out of hand. With some exceptions, however, today we neglect to study management literature with the same rigor. How are capitalists strategizing workplace reorganization? What, if anything, can we appropriate from this literature for our own struggles? And, above all, how can this knowledge help us articulate historically relevant workplace strategies?

From Taylorism to Toyotaism

Identifying and distinguishing trends in the evolution of management science is key to understanding how workers today should aim to organize resistance at the point of production. Frederick Winslow Taylor developed his theory of how management should orient itself under the moniker of “scientific management.” For all its overtures to science, it was later shown to contain a series of fatal flaws by more contemporary management theories, calling its presuppositions into question. For example, although the pursuit of what Taylor termed “task fragmentation” did indeed pave the way for the use of cheaper unskilled labor, its direct effects have been criticized by modern management literature: increased apathy and dissatisfaction within the workforce, considerable drops in worker motivation, culminating in absenteeism and sabotage. Current organizing strategies, especially in workplaces that set only a mild degree of task fragmentation, cannot easily utilize or channel these types of discontent.

Today new forms of management science dominate the factory, one of the primary being the Japanese-developed “lean manufacturing” principle, otherwise known as “Toyotaism.” This system depends upon what it describes as “natural work teams.” Toyotaism borrows elements from Taylorist methods, including the “one best way” model for task delegation; however, it also carries with its own set of worker dissatisfactions. For example, in the Toyota Production System (TPS), workers are required to make a certain number of suggestions toward the improvement of the production process each year. Because this aim is linked to pay and promotion, management receives many bogus suggestions that ultimately prove to be ineffectual. Management literature these days tends to describe the TPS as efficient, but particularly unpleasant for workers. Some managers are now unsurprisingly concerned with making their workers happier.

Vertical Loading

One of the constant themes running through management science today is finding ways to expand workers’ autonomy and control over the work process as a way to increase performance, output, and the overall profitability of the firm. In other words, managers now are encouraged to actually increase the level of responsibility workers have to leverage workers’ desires for self-management. This can lead in varying directions, whether this takes the form of the research, as can be found in the Hawthorne Studies which revealed the emergence of gang-like formations among different groups of workers, or the “Quality of Work Life” movement’s suggestions to give workers managerial responsibilities. The point is that managers are encouraged to distance themselves from early Taylorist theories of “scientific management,” which treated workers as blank slates, and instead foster workforce participation in internal organizational processes.

This is exactly the reason why in certain chains and stores, such as Starbucks, individual workers are given supervisory roles with a small degree of managerial power; they lessen the burden on management proper and help to relieve burnout among higher-level employees, while simultaneously decreasing what is termed “boreout” among workers. This even has a special term within the management literature: “vertical loading.” Workers are urged to take on the responsibilities of work scheduling, tracking their own work times and breaks, directing training sessions, and handling recruitment decisions instead of management. One can therefore observe a very interesting convergence here with classical notions of radical self-management – the idea that the workforce could quite easily take on the tasks of management without the need for an externalized and top-heavy management structure – and which has recently been glimpsed in the Argentinian example, where workers took over factories abandoned by capital and ran them as cooperatives.3


Another uncanny convergence can be seen in the literature that makes up the interdisciplinary field of Organizational Behavior, and its usage within the broader field of Industrial Relations. Industrial Relations delineates four “frames of reference” to industrial conflict, typically between unions and management.4 Of the four frames, there are two that, in particular, are of interest for our concerns here. The first is the “interactionist frame,” which sees organizational conflict as crucial to the process of innovation within the workplace. Managers are actually encouraged to stimulate a certain level of conflict, with the assumption that conflict between workers and management is an inevitable occurrence that sets dynamics of self-criticism, change, and innovation in motion. Management is encouraged to deploy specific tactics in order to foment workplace “crises”: allowing a financial loss to occur, not correcting repeated errors, or setting targets so high that they can’t be reached through business as usual. The conflict that results is then employed to advance and impel the organization forward.

There are superficial similarities between the interactionist frame and Mario Tronti’s theory of capitalist development, in terms of the perpetuity of workplace conflict. Tronti fundamentally refined the paradigmatic thesis of Italian operaismo: capitalist development follows from the struggles of the working class. In “Lenin in England,” his 1964 essay later included in Workers and Capital, Tronti argued that “at the level of socially developed capital, capitalist development becomes subordinated to working class struggles; it follows behind them, and they set the pace to which the political mechanisms of capital’s own reproduction must be tuned.”5 While Tronti ultimately looked for ways in which working class power could be politically recomposed on the basis of these conflicts, the similarities are evident.

The other frame particularly of interest is the “radical frame” of reference, influenced in part by Marxism. The radical frame of reference for industrial relations states that conflict between workers and management is an inevitable outcome of capitalist social relations. Today’s management literature within the radical frame actually shows an awareness of Marx’s theory of alienation, and explores in detail the ways in which workers resist alienation through elaborate informal systems of work avoidance and sabotage.

Self-Management Notes Project

Our present moment is marked by the fact that a growing number of capitalist firms – some, like Zappos, more explicitly than others – are experimenting with forms of self-management and testing organizational theories that in some senses uncannily echo many of the ideas socialists have historically developed to guide workplace organizing. This convergence poses enormous strategic challenges for socialists today, which is why I have initiated a Self-Management Notes project to help sharpen our strategic orientation toward workplace organizing. Since we need to tailor our strategies to the historical specificities of the workplaces, and therefore the management structures, we confront, we need to begin a collective research investigation of management literature.

The goal of the Self-Management Notes project is not to develop a socialist form of management theory – in the disastrous way, for example, that the Bolshevik government in the Soviet Union attempted to apply wholesale Taylorism to replace the factory committees, via the implementation of forms of “one-man management.”6 Rather, the goal of untangling the intricacies of management science serves a dual purpose. First, the strands that promote the need for a self-managing workforce in capitalist enterprises serve to show, by example, that workers really don’t need capitalist management structures to effectively administer the means of production, should they pass into common rather than private ownership. This helps to demonstrate – contra the skeptics – the possibility of a world in which workers can control the means of production. As theorists such as Amadeo Bordiga have long argued, self-management is by no means equivalent to the abolition of capital. But it is nevertheless a central axis of revolutionary struggle.

Second, if socialist activists can understand and properly integrate studies on the nature of group dynamics and how workers socially interact with one another, this could provide a powerful framework that can contribute to the organizing process as a whole. Organizer-training programs developed by unions like the Industrial Workers of the World already make use of concepts adapted from the SEIU, including socially mapping the workplace to reveal informal group dynamics. Further research into the niches of social psychology from which these techniques were drawn – heavily referenced by management science – can help create new theoretical tools for workers in order to devise better tactics and strategies throughout the organizing process. This is important considering the changed nature of the workplace today, especially in the United States and United Kingdom, where a great deal of the economy is made up by an expansive “service sector.”

Building New Strategies

Current workplace strategy is necessarily very different from that of the past. Many organizations today devote extensive resources towards training their managers, and as a result, managers are better prepared and equipped with sociological and psychological instruments to better understand the workplace than ever before. The effectiveness of a motivational rewards system, for example, is highlighted in Douglas McGregor’s famous distinction between Theory X and Theory Y as two different options for management strategy.7 Theory X posits that workers lack creativity, inherently dislike work, and require direct supervision and orders, but has been greatly discredited over time. Theory Y on the other hand, allows for a certain degree of workers’ autonomy within the production process, and sees workers as inventive, and thus more inclined to take pride in a “job well done.” Although Theory Y is still essentially a theory of human nature, and very much a part of an overall capitalist strategy designed to increase profits, it is significantly more advanced or progressive when compared to the traditional, blatantly domineering and repressive view of Theory X.

Many post-workerist theorists have traced this shift in managerial practice, if outside of the Theory X/Theory Y vocabulary. While the latter is ostensibly a welcome change from the repetitive confines of Fordist varieties of labor-discipline, it is potentially more insidious due to the short-circuit it draws between subjectivity and value production. Maurizio Lazzarato, for one, has argued that many enterprises and employers today have conceded and transferred a certain amount of “autonomy and freedom” to productive activity, especially within forms of “immaterial labor.” The exemplary managerial role is now envisioned as facilitative and communicative, and direct disciplinary or motivational interventions are discouraged. But, as Lazzarato notes, “today’s management thinking takes workers’ subjectivity into consideration only to codify it in line with the requirements of production” – any demands for the redistribution of power within the workplace or company are strictly off the table.8

An organizing praxis today would have to take these transformations into account. Rather than using dissatisfaction over the lack of autonomy experienced by workers, as would have been the case in a workplace stuck in a Theory X point of view, it would be a matter of using the relative ‒ but still tenuous and recuperable ‒ autonomy that Theory Y ascribes to the workforce for the purpose of organizing against management.9

The creation of new tools for organization, strategy, and movement-building is, of course, the end goal of the Self-Management Notes project. An important step in approaching this goal is deconstructing the full body of management science, through the reading and critical comprehension of contemporary organizational behavior literature and the the academic disciplines that have proved influential for management knowledge. This is only a step, however, within a larger process, and the project’s revisable form can help us adjust our strategies in light of new material, research, and struggles.

You can start to read the preliminary notes outlining and deconstructing various management theories, strategies and practices by visiting the Self-Management Notes wiki.10

Ongoing summations and deconstructions will be posted to the wiki, and there is a plan to publish pamphlets or a book connected to more concrete organizing strategies and concerns within workplaces and enterprises. The wiki is free for all workers to read, and it is recommended to link directly to it rather than posting its content elsewhere, due to frequent additions and the changing nature of the texts as the project moves forward.

Thanks to Salar Mohandesi and the Viewpoint editorial collective for comments and edits on earlier drafts.

  1. Itzhak Revaz, “Motivation – Group Formation Notes,” 2015.

  2. Itzhak Revaz, “Motivation - Self-Management Notes,” 2015.

  3. Nora Leccese, “A Decade After The Take: Inside Argentina’s Worker Owned Factories” (2013).  

  4. Itzhak Revaz, “Conflict,” 2015. 

  5. Mario Tronti, “Lenin In England,” (1964) in Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis: Italian Marxist Texts of the Theory and Practice of a Class Movement: 1964-1979, (London: Red Notes, 1979), 1-6.  

  6. Vladimir Lenin, “Speech Delivered At The Third All-Russia Trade Union Congress,” in Collected Works, Volume 30 (Moscow: International Publishers, 1965), 502-515. Cf. Robert Linhart, Lénine, les paysans, Taylor (Paris: Seuil, 2010 [1976]), 101-219. 

  7. Cf. Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960). 

  8. See Maurizio Lazzarato, “Immaterial Labor,” trans. Paul Colilli and Ed Emory, in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, ed. Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 133-147, 136. 

  9. To read more about theories of human motivation see the corresponding page on the Self-Management Notes website. 

  10. Itzhak Revaz, “Self-Management Notes,” 2015.

Author of the article

received his diploma in Politics in 2014, and began the Self-Management Notes project in response to attending a management course at a business school.