by Yvette Carnell
Modern management techniques are heralded at top business schools as grand mechanisms of efficiency, born in early American factories, but a report published in Harvard Business Review indicates that slave owners were the first to expertly employ these techniques. Without having to worry about turnover, slave owners could focus exclusively on optimization and efficiency.
Slaveholders also developed an equivalence unit called “the prime field hand.” They assigned certain capabilities to the prime hand, such as expected production per day. Workers were measured against this standard and given values such as “half hand” and “quarter hand.” Owners used these units as benchmarks across plantations. If one slaveholder reported that he had 13 hands who were the equivalent of 10 prime hands, other slaveholders would have known exactly what that meant in terms of production.
Even though we’re well past the era of physical slavery, what does it say about our modern economy that we’re still employing the tools perfected by slavemasters? What does it say that little Harvard biz sharks are being taught the same systems and models of effectiveness that slavemasters pioneered?
Your boss looks at you the same way as the slavemaster viewed the slave—purely as human capital. Your only worth is in what you can produce in labor and how efficiently and effectively you can produce it. After that, you’re disposable.
Slaves were considered just numbers, not people, to their masters, and now workers are considered just numbers, not actual human beings, to their companies. My how far we’ve come.