Technological Phases in the Development of Capitalism

Fordism, Sloanism and Taylorism and Post-Fordism


W. Robert Needham


Technological changes come at us as mediums carrying messages, according to McLuhan and as gales of creative destruction according to Schumpter.


We are concerned with technology for it is a material means of production and existence, and it is a cultural construction and it is a political-economic construction. The notion of system is integral to this.[1] So it is important to think of technological systems and their built in values as those of the economic and social system in which we live. The economic and social system in which we live is dominated by one bottom line value, profit.[2] In fact unconstrained liberty, inequality and competition figure into this as background operational values for the economic system. Profit is to be obtained generally by the control of technical efficiency, as measured say, by output per person, N/Q, and that implies direct control of labour and indirectly (through labour) control of society, by those who own and control the means of material production, or existence.[3]


The Timing of Major Technological Phases—one specification



1.       1750-1830 - The First Industrial Revolution: based around cotton and pig iron technologies, and generally mechanical inventions; In US 1794 marks Eli Whitney’s patent of cotton gin and, in making cotton more profitable, led to extension of slave labour.


2.       1830s - The Early Victorian Period: based on steam power and low cost coal (the First IR merges with Second IR about 1850)


3.       1880s-1890s - the Late Victorian Period: based on low cost steel and on engineering based on steel. Large corporations emerge— U.S. Steel, General Electric, and Bayer AG added to the list of the railroad companies


4.       1930s-1970s – Fordism: electro-mechanical engineering, electronics, oil and petro chemicals, auto and truck transportation


5.    1980s - Post Fordism: micro-electronics, bio-technology and new materials. "...computers and global networks of digital communication, some associated with production, some with distribution and some with marketing and consumption." (Canada in the Global Village, Module II, Overview)



A number of items in the above table require elaboration. First, the notion of the Industrial Revolution.[4] The Industrial Revolution meant changes in the social relations between employees (workers) and employers (capitalists) in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There were preceding and accompanying changes in agriculture (the enclosure system) and handicraft industry (the putting-out system).


The Industrial Revolution meant a generalized factory system and the factory system made possible the on-site control of the labour process (including who should work, how long they should work, and how hard they should work). Later changes in mechanical techniques resulting from invention and innovations led to constant reorganization of the labour process and provided even greater control over labour. Wage slavery in industry added to labour slavery in cotton and wherever else slave labour was practiced.


Taken together these innovations in how things were done around here in agriculture and in industry worked to dispossess workers of rights of control (ownership and access to) the means of existence, the production process and the product of their work leaving them with only the necessity (that is encumbered by the necessity) to sell their time on earth and labour power for a wage.


The differentia specifica of capitalism that it is a system with waged labour as the dominant mode of production -- in class terms meant the worker had become a commodity at the beck and call of the capitalist and open to the instability and alienation of market forces. Though the rhetoric has it that the world is free and that there are free labour markets, comparatively it was the capitalist that was truly 'free,' for the capitalist was 'encumbered by ownership' and all the rights and privileges of control over other people that this allowed.


The second main feature of the above table are the concepts Fordism and Fordist. These are attributed to the period 1930s-1970s. Fordist techniques are normally associated with assembly line methods. Generally, however, Fordism should be taken to mean a technological and social control system. Fordism implies large economies of scale, organized corporate capitalism, mass production, mass consumption, and the so-called building block industries that are listed under point: 4 in the above table.


“The social institutions of mass production --- collectively referred to as Fordism --- began to emerge in the US early in the twentieth century and were at the center of a decades-long process of social struggle which extended into the immediate post-World War II era. Cold War ideology played a crucial role in the political stabilization of Fordist institutions in the US, providing the common ground on which de-radicalized industrial labor unions could be incorporated as junior partners in a coalition of globally-oriented social forces which worked together to rebuild the "free world" along liberal capitalist lines and to resist the encroachment of a presumed Communist menace globally and at home. Institutionalized Fordism, in turn, enabled the US to contribute almost half of world industrial production in the immediate postwar years, and thus provided the economic dynamism necessary to spark reconstruction of the major capitalist countries after World War II, and to support the emergence of both the consumer society and the military-industrial complex in the postwar US.”[5]



Taylorism -- a term that is to be linked to Fordism -- means capitalist control of production and the employment of labour through 'scientifically' controlled factory and assembly line methods.


“Under Taylor's management system, factories are managed through scientific methods rather than by use of the empirical "rule of thumb" so widely prevalent in the days of the late nineteenth century when F. W. Taylor devised his system and published "Scientific Management" in 1911.”[6]


Sloanism -- refers to the introduction of annual model changes, as introduced, for example, at General Motors' Chevrolet plants. For comparison, the early Ford Motor Company products were of a single model over a number of years.


“The Great Depression and a saturated market brought on a decline in car sales. Alfred Sloan, head of GM in the 30s introduced the concepts of the upgrade and variety marketing. 1. The ‘upgrade’: Automobiles would change each year (as well as become more expensive) by introducing new styling and comfort features, encouraging consumers to trade in their old cars with greater frequency. The number of standard body types was reduced to three, and emphasis shifted to appearance. An “Art and Color” division was established within the company, which introduced such changing features as “the Sculptured Design,” “the Brightly Colored Body,” and “the Low, Lean Look.” 2. Variety Marketing: the market was diversified and particular models were aimed at particular classes of consumers. Sloanism marked the beginning of post-Fordist era, when marketing began to dominate the process of production. GM’s method of marketing became a worldwide model by which business could create and nourish demand. Sloanism continues to be essential to the workings of our late-capitalist economy. In the Post-Fordist era society is no longer structured in terms of classes that are determined with respect to labour and production. Now society is structure in terms of consumer classes, i.e. now it’s not where you work but where you shop that determines your place within the social structure. The aesthetization of waste: Along with upgrades and vareity marketing an aesthetization of waste has helps to propel our economy. Images of disposing, destruction and waste (car crashes, changing styles). Through media imagery we have been trained to accept and laud waste and disposal. And thus we readily accept the imperative to throw out what we have and replace it with the newest version. The ever-mounting glut of waste materials is a characteristic by-product of modern "consumer society". It might even be argued that capitalism's continual need to find or generate markets means that disposal and waste have becomes the spine of the system (Stuart Ewen, All Consuming Images, 1988)” [7]


The annual model change can be seen as the historical predecessor of what is now referred to in post-Fordist jargon as flexible production-in which commodities may be customized quickly with computer assisted techniques. Thus, as the jargon gas it: CIM -- means Computer Integrated Manufacture; CAD -- means Computer Aided Design; and CAM – means Computer Aided Manufacture.


The post-Fordist regime of technological change may be said to be characterized as economies 'of scope' rather than 'of scale.' Economies of scope imply small size and faster turn around, in production and delivery -- that is of 'quick time.'


The building block industries of the post Fordist regime are now those outlined in point 5 in the table. Each of these technologies implies a massive reduction in labour requirements in both goods and services producing sectors. But the service sector cannot be expected to absorb all the people who are released from goods production.


Moreover, micro-electronics will diminish the importance of geographic separation and problems of time and space; social space and social relationships will alter as geographically separated people connect with machines and with each other in almost instantaneous time.


Many people in the close proximity of the geographical space of large cities will encounter vast social space, be lonely, deprived, dispossessed and alienated for the want of community 'connectedness' and purpose.



A Final Comment -- The Broad Sweep to the Global -- Capitalist --Village:


There is a circular legitimating process that is supposed to link production and consumption in capitalist economies. This entails the mass consumption by growing populations of mass produced commodities. In the production of commodities large union-dominated labour forces are employed. Occasional instabilities in national systems are, or were supposed to be, ironed out through Keynesian demand management techniques which included fiscal and monetary policies and the welfare state.


But the system always requires markets and access to new markets. (This is a contributing factor to the war economy in the US).


In the simplest of terms, since human needs are easily met, a system with ever expanding productive capacity always requires new outlets or markets for its products (or entrepreneurial talents). This necessity leads to various ideas, the most important of which is that of centralization of power and control. Then, an idea jump can be made to the notion that “all wars are trade wars” and that wars are meant to assure access to and centralized control by the centre of the system over the outlying parts of the empire. (Back cast through the wars of the last two or three hundred years to find a rough validation of the assertion).


The next idea jump is to the nation state being the problem in so far as it fetters and constrains business. The next jump is to globalization and its ism and that the people of the earth, in all their diversity, are being controlled and homogenized (at least the attempt is being made) on terms and values defined by the corporate sector through economic constitutions such as FTA, NAFTA (and, they had hoped, MAI) and centre imposed wars on the periphery.


Globalism and corporatism have the problem of being associated with fascism.


“It was actually Italian philosopher Giovanni Gentile who wrote the entry in the Encyclopedia Italiana that said: ‘Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.’ Mussolini, however, affixed his name to the entry, and claimed credit for it.”[8]


The great error of nearly all studies of war... has been to consider war as an episode in foreign policies, when it is an act of interior politics...

~Simone Weil


Some Other Sources:

Bernal, J. D. [1953] (1970). Science and Industry in the Nineteenth Century. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press).


Hobsbawm, E. J. (1999). Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day, rev. and updated with Chris Wrigley, 2nd ed., (New York: New Press).


Kranzberg, Melvin, and Carroll W. Pursell, Jr. (eds.) (1967). Technology in Western Civilization, 2 vols., (New York: Oxford University Press).


Landes, David (2003). The Unbound Prometheus: Technical Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present, 2nd ed., (New York: Cambridge University Press.


The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution:


The First Industrial Revolution:


The Second Industrial Revolution:


Naomi Klien, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, — an account of the global effects of Sloanism and marketing.


Anti-War Quotes:

[1]     See the PE Table:

[2]     Profit as the Root of All Evil: The Devil is in the Details:

[3]     If this is the case why on earth do we allow the means of existence to be owned privately?

[4]     See Industrial Revolution:

[5]     Mark Rupert, Fordism:

[6]     Vincenzo Sandrone, Taylorism, F. W. Taylor & Scientific Management:

[7]     Sloanism;

[8]     Thom Hartmann, Reclaiming The Issues: Islamic Or Republican Fascism?