Notes on Anson Rabinbach The Human Motor

Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990)


This book is a study of the human motor, a metaphor of work and energy that provided nineteenth-century thinkers with a new scientific and cultural framework. Through this metaphor, scientists and social reformers could articulate their passionate materialism, embracing nature, industry, and human activity in a single, overarching concept–labor power.

Their vision of a society powered by universal energy offered continental Europe, undergoing its industrial revolution, an exhilarating explanation for its astonishing productivity. In that vision, the working body was but an exemplar of that universal process by which energy was converted into mechanical work, a variant of the great engines and dynamos spawned by the industrial age. The protean force of nature, the productive power of industrial machines, and the body in motion were all instances of the same dynamic laws, subject to measurement. (1)

From the metaphor of the motor, it followed that society might conserve, deploy, and expand the energies of the laboring body: harmonize the movements of the body with those of the industrial machine…

If the working body was a motor, some scientists reasoned, it might even be possible to eliminate the stubborn resistance to perpetual work that distinguished the human body from a machine. If fatigue, the endemic disorder of industrial society, could be analyzed and overcome, the last obstacle to progress would be eliminated.

This image of the body as the site of energy conservation and conversion also helped propel the ambitious state-sponsored reforms of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Europe

Expanded productivity and social reform–linked projects; and whatever their differences: Taylorism, bolshevism, and fascism all  drew on “the dynamic language of energy” and the view of the worker “as a machine capable of infinite productivity” and resistance to fatigue

These movements conceived of the body both as a productive force and as a political instrument whose energies could be subjected to  scientifically designed systems of organization (2)

This book is concerned with tracing the origins and implications of this image of ‘labor power’ as the fundamental imperative that links society and nature in nineteenth-century thought (3)

*A central argument of this study is that modern productivism–the belief that human society and nature are linked by the primacy and identity of all productive activity, whether of laborers, of machines, or of natural forces–first arose from the conceptual revolution ushered in by nineteenth century scientific discoveries, especially thermodynamics

Main character: Hermann von Helmholtz

thermodynamics: all forces of nature as forms of the same universal energy; emphasis on conservation; production of new image of life–as “a vast and protean reservoir or labor power awaiting its conversion to work” (3) (what a great way of putting it)

Another main character: second law of thermodynamics (identified by Rudolf Clausius), which explains the irreversibility and decline of energy in entropy; general tendency towards dissipation of energy (3)

Thus initial wave of enthusiasm for boundless energy-converted-to-work was soon accompanied by suspicion of tendencies of decline, dissolution, exhaustion; symbolized in endemic disorder of fatigue– “the most evident and persistent reminder of the body’s intractable resistance to unlimited progress and productivity” (4)

Thus, the transformation of labor into labor power–separation of bodily exertion from human will; break with spiritualized vision of labor in Christian tradition, and ancient Greek hatred of labor; a purely quantifiable output of force

The language of labor power was more than a new way of representing work: it was a totalizing framework that subordinated all social activity to production, raising the human project of labor to a universal attribute of nature (4)

(Really important: on anxiety): “a widespread fear that the energy of mind and body was dissipating under the strain of modernity; that the will, the imagination, and especially the health of the nation was being squandered in wanton disregard of the body’s physiological laws. Fatigue thus became the most apparent and distinctive sign of the external limits of body and mind, the most reliable indicator of the need to conserve and restrict the waste and misuse of the body’s unique capital–its labor power. Central to this book is the significance of fatigue, which replaced the traditional emphasis on idleness as the paramount cause of resistance to work. Its ubiquity was evidence of the body’s stubborn subversion of modernity (6)

(Importance of the state as mediator of these historical processes): In this new constellation of knowledge and politics, the state was the ‘visible expression of the invisible bond that unites all living beings in the same society.’ Social justice, reformers claimed, would inevitably lead to expanded productivity (8)

(Another extremely important note): There is no dearth of social histories documenting changes in the labor process during the ‘second industrial revolution’… Labor historians have elaborated a rich and textured picture of the replacement of skilled artisanal labor by machinery and factory work; the breakup of the power of the local workers’ organizations; the rise of a new industrial working class of unskilled, and often female, workers; the emergence of a new form of collective action… and more sophisticated techniques of surveillance and discipline by state and capital… Although attention to family, sexuality, culture, and language served to acknowledge that production was not the alpha and omega of history, these domains were still defined by their proximity (outside of, reactive to) production. Having abandoned Marxism, many social historians became skeptical of theory and dismissed their own, earlier productivism as a methodological error (here, I might try to distinguish between productivism–which some Marxists certainly have been guilty of–and producerism, which I think, at least in the US, is a far more common disease).

The correction of error, however, frequently evades full analysis of the problem: in this instance, disregard of Marxism’s productivist assumptions as a powerful historical force meriting critical investigation.

*Rarely interrogated were the constricting efforts of productivism on the labor movement’s vision and practices–the ways that labor movements helped workers to adapt to industrial processes, accelerated improved techniques of production, and excluded significant dimensions of culture and politics not central to production. Most important, the ways in which scientific ideas, epistemological frameworks, and reform strategies redefined labor… eluded most social historians because they did not emerge directly from class conflict (a task taken up, much more satisfactorily, Rabinbach argues, by intellectual historians and those influenced by Foucault, Adorno and Horkheimer, etc). (15)

Rabinbach closes his introduction with a reference to Benjamin’s planned chapter on “idleness” in Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century: idleness gave birth to “the distracted, externally stimulated experience” at the heart of modernity–and, of course, “idleness” is not irrelevant to the history of featherbedding.


Lest we think of Rabinbach’s work as applicable only to weird German scientists in the 1800s, we should consider, for example, how Rabinbachian Alexander Heron’s Why Men Work (1947) –a book with a chapter on the figurative “Paralysis of the Motor Nerve” that could have been taken out of a German labor science text– is:

In the introduction, Heron warns of the potential heat death of capitalism: If management should “fail to induce other workers, other than ourselves, to work willingly, steadily, and effectively in producing the goods and services we want to buy” we face inflation, the illness of our system of exchanging our work for our wants,” and deflation, “the collapse of the sick system” (3)

The spirit of productivist pessimism permeates the text: “If management cannot induce almost all of us to work effectively, our American way of life is a failure” (4)

Heron is responding, he writes, as a response to the despair of America’s managers: “we hear a million Americans, charged with duties of management, asking desperately why men do not work.” The mood was one of “desperate worry,” “the scientific attitude replaced by exasperation”…

“Why do men not work,” Heron asks, “when their work is desperately needed by the nation and the world–when their efforts are being bid for as never before?” (6)

As management coughed up more and more money, “the average production per worker became consistently less”… (7)

Heron is looking for a general, universal theory of featherbedding–a sort of updated version of the German scientists of work and their quest for a universal theory of energy and fatigue:

“Somewhere, there must be rules which we should understand, which we must observe, if we are to work effectively as a whole people… Leaders of organized labor must know why men work, if they are to obtain the real values that their followers want. All of us as workers must know why we work, if we are to get the essential satisfactions from our activities” (7)

“All of us as Americans must know why we work if we are to preserve our place among nations which advance by the intelligent work of their people. As civilized human beings, we must know why we work, if we are to avoid a recession in our standard of living and if we are to contribute our step forward in the history of the race” (8)

It is easy and satisfying and traditional to assume that men work because they must work, in order to provide themselves with the necessities of life… we are likely to assume that the desires for both basic and cultural necessities are the spurs which make us work” (9)

Here’s the shift from desire to drive

“But we are awakening to the unpleasant discovery that, as a nation of workers, we do not follow any such simple logic in our group activities. Our wants for physical things are at the highest peak in all of our history… And yet we jointly refrain from working effectively” (11)

We are not working: “Whether we restrain our output by inattention to management duties or by a slowdown on the production line, the result is the same. Whether we are on strike, or vacationing on unemployment compensation, or witholding our crops from a hungry market, or restricting our day’s output of bricklaying, the answer is the same”

“Somewhere outside the scope of what money can buy, there must be a cause for which men will work” (12)

“Men who do not need to work in order to satisfy their wants for anything which money can buy are still driven, induced, or inspired to work–and work hard. Other men, and all of us in general, who must work because we need the money and things that money can buy, are not working steadily, not working effectively, not working happily or willingly. We do not know today the fundamental reasons why men work or why men do not work. The old answers do not fit the question today” (14)

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