To the John Wayne Airport
Productivity, “Death Drive,” and The Intellectual History of Capitalism in the 1950s
Historians still tend to think of the politics of capitalism in the 1950s as a dull affair. Labor historians grapple with the turn from white-hot class struggle in the 1930s and 1940s––peaking with the strike wave of 1946––to the torpor of class compromise in the 1950s. Intellectual historians of capitalism have similarly tried to tease something exciting out of the thought of the 1950s, often reconfirming our sense of the decade as a time of pacified interests and bureaucratically adjusted passions. In fact, it could be argued that the reason that historians of American capitalism have been so drawn of late to the intellectual history of the postwar Right is that conservatism seems like the only place in which passion, aggression, ideology, and intellectual creativity can be found in the period that Harvey Swados mockingly dubbed “Utopia Unlimited in the Fat 1950s.”
This sense of a pacific Eisenhower-era history of political economy and intellectual history of capitalism only holds up, however, if we fail to attend to the real question that obsessed both labor and capital (and, in its mediating role, the state) in the 1950s: productivity. Reading the Industrial Relations literature, business press, and political language of the 1950s reveals a common idée fixe: to keep the American economy competitive, workers would have to accept that it was now their patriotic duty to become machines, to fully materialize as “manpower” during their hours on the job. Underlying this duty was a universalized guilt—an inner voice urging endless work––that distinguishes, according to Walter Benjamin, capitalism as a religion.
After World War II, a new variant of the postbellum “drive system”—which, “as a result of mechanization and reduced dependence on craft labor” vested massive amounts of power in foremen and superintendents “whose function was to drive employees to work ever faster”––insinuated itself in America’s factories. In 1961, Industrial Relations guru Sumner Slichter lamented the effects of this incipient new “drive system”: “perhaps most important and self-evident among all the causes of low morale, is the use of drive methods by management to sustain and increase output.” The new “drive system,” Slichter lamented, “compels the men to concentrate their attention and ingenuity upon limiting output, and upon frustrating the efforts of the management to push up the pace.”
The conflict and aggression engendered by the “drive system” was not mysterious: the system itself was predicated upon a sort of channelized industrial sadism. Daniel Nelson describes the turn-of-the-century “drive system” as a political structure premised upon “a combination of authoritarian rule and physical compulsion” and cites period sources who broke down this variety of motivation as a science of hand motions and profanity, “driving, overbearing, and unsympathetic administration of…power”; Slichter observed that in the 1950s-era “drive system,” the foreman continued to rely upon threats in order to obtain results. We should keep this notion of the “drive system” premised on aggression and potential violence in mind as we proceed.
The contradictions inherent in the renewed “drive system” animate a variety of texts from the 1950s, including some we might not think of immediately, such as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1955). Ginsberg’s famous poem is a prolonged meditation upon the terrors of 1950s-era productivism, what Swados called the “insane treadmill” of postwar work:
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! … Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! … Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!
Compare Howl with Harvey Swados’s “Myth of the Happy Worker” (1957):
It is not simply status hunger that makes a man hate work that is mindless, stupefying, sweaty, filthy, noisy, exhausting, insecure in its prospects and practically without hope of advancement… Almost without exception, the men with whom I worked on the assembly line last year felt like trapped animals. Depending on their age and circumstances, they were either resigned to their fate, furiously angry at themselves for what they were doing, or desperately hunting other work that would pay as well and in addition offer some variety, some prospect of change and betterment. They were sick of being pushed around by harried foremen… sick of working like blinkered donkeys, sick of being dependent for their livelihood on a maniacal production-merchandising setup…
The pent-up frustration of the factory worker, Swados observed, increasingly began to take the form of old-fashioned sabotage against the gods of efficiency and output maximization: “bananas stuck in tailpipes, nuts and bolts thrown in tail fins, raw aggression.”
Reflecting upon this cluster of negative affect and paranoid fantasy at work in Ginsberg and Swados––so difficult to process in terms of our habitual readings of capitalism in the 1950s––compels us to introduce a new interpretive term (to make a link, as it were, between one “drive system” and another): “death drive,” borrowed from Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). Reading the literature of postwar capitalism through the lens of “death drive” allows us finally, I think, to come to terms with the demonic character of the 1950s-era productivity obsession, and to think more seriously (to use some familiar Freudian terms) about productivity’s vicissitudes and its discontents. In order to set the table properly, however, we need to review the curious array of fantasies and anxieties that gave rise to the cult of productivity in the first place.
Beginning with the war, and accelerating steadily in the ensuing years, ruling-class Americans became increasingly convinced that labor productivity was declining. There were many reasons that the “labor question” presented itself in the 1950s as a conflict over productivity and output restriction. The Eisenhower Era was a moment of mass bureaucratic unionism and pattern bargaining. Union leaders pledged certain productivity levels in exchange for wage and benefit gains, often without much contact with rank and file workers or sufficient grasp of the changing realities of the production process. Thus rank and file loyalty to the union was often highly abstract, while frustrations simmered around concrete interactions with union representatives.
Labor-management struggle on the shop floor was shaped by the successive failures of both Taylorism and Elton Mayo-style “human relations”-oriented management schemes. Neither had proven effective at raising productivity without triggering shop-floor discontent and sabotage. As a result, many firms began to experiment anew in the 1950s with piecework and incentive systems: returning workers to a pre-Taylorite, Darwinian factory ambience. Along with continuing battles over featherbedding and labor racketeering, haunted by earlier discourses of “soldiering” and “malingering,” and in view of the imminent specter of automation, 1950s-era capitalism was structured around an intense focus on the palpable pointlessness of industrial labor, and the apparent futility of attempts to induce greater levels of productivity.
According to the bourgeois press, other countries like Germany and Japan, newly propped up by Marshall Plan and post-Bretton Woods monetary and trade policy, seemed to be evincing productivity regimes twice or three times as robust as that of the US. In many industries, however, it was not clear how the United States could compete without mass layoffs or the endangerment of workers’ lives and limbs.
Conventional wisdom took the form of nervous councils of despair, as in Stanford economist John P. Troxell’s foreword to Alexander Heron’s Why Men Work (1947): “financial rewards and penalties” had ceased to be “wholly equal to the important task that we entrust to them–inducing men to work.” For “most of the gainfully employed,” Troxell noted, “there is no clear promise of a prize for sustained effort, and no great likelihood of penalty for withholding it—not in a time of full employment.” “True,” he observed, “we would rather work than loaf, and we enjoy productive work; bootless effort or ‘made work’ of any type is despised.” However, “a general distaste for loafing is a very different thing from that zeal for hard work which is essential to full production.”
There were some deep problems, however, that complicated the picture that economists like Troxell painted of declining national productivity. Most importantly: productivity then lacked (and, as I understand it, still lacks) any sort of definitive measure. In 1961, NBER economist Solomon Fabricant, a productivity hawk, admitted that the “statistical information available for calculating productivity indexes is deficient in various respects.” “We all have far to go,” Fabricant cautioned, “before any of can claim to understand fully the process of productivity change, its causes, or consequences, or to see clearly the way to deal with the issues involved.” The project of establishing clearly “the basic facts of productivity change” remained a task for future economists to fulfill.
Setting aside the problems that bedeviled the calculation of output in a given factory, firm, sector, or the economy as a whole (a problem compounded by cyclical factors that cannot be properly controlled for in even the best regression), no one in the 1950s could decide whether productivity meant maximum muscular exertion by every worker all the time, or capital reinvestment in productive capacity.American capitalists were notoriously averse to compiling and sharing information. It was only with the efforts of Simon Kuznets in the 1930s that the national accounts began to be properly measured: the baseline, in the 1950s, for productivity gains or losses was thus still extraordinarily recent and empirically limited. Furthermore, most economists acknowledged that productivity was subjective: what mattered most was not the real numbers, but the speed or velocity with which productivity was rising or falling, as compared with other firms, sectors, or nations.
Fabricant admitted that productivity––the “measure of the efficiency with which resources are converted into the commodities and services that men want,” a prerequisite for “better levels of economic well-being,” and essential ingredient in ensuring “greater national strength”––was a “subject surrounded by considerable confusion.” People used the same word but meant different things: “As a consequence, various figures on productivity change come into use, and these often differ in significant degree.” The calculation of the rate of productivity change, Fabricant revealed, was not a question of fixed quantities. Properly speaking, “productivity” was a historical question, entirely dependent upon the comparison of norms in one period to norms in another: “What the past or current rate of productivity change is depends on the particular period for which the calculation is made. If no reference is made to the period, and if the period varies considerably from one context to another, confusion results.”
Acknowledgement of these epistemological difficulties did not, of course, stem the tide of complaints about declining productivity: in attacks on labor racketeering and “featherbedding,’ in calls for increased automation and for the non-interference of labor unions in the replacement of men by machines, in a strain of liberal anti-Communism that saw all workplace discontent as the work of CP-trained subversive connivers, in the increasing Cold War-inflected sense of national identity as dependent upon muscular comparative advantage in the form of manpower, measured against all other nations.
Ironically, by most historical measures it now seems that American productivity, in almost every sector of the economy, was actually increasing in the 1950s, and would continue to do so until some point in the late 1960s (in fact, there is still room to debate whether there was a real productivity slowdown in the 1960s at all). The most urgent intellectual historical question, then, is this: why was the capitalist sector so convinced that productivity was on a terminal death-spiral?
The answer, I think, lies in this curious notion of the “death drive”: postwar intellectuals were circling around the disjuncture between capitalism’s self-presentation and its internal mechanisms, without quite knowing how to name their unease: in much the same situation as political theorists protesting royal abuses before the elaboration of theories of sovereignty, or of improving landlords prior to Locke’s articulation of natural law. In this case, the proper term had already been created several decades earlier, and had even been worked up in the “stagnationist” theories of John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter—but for obvious reasons (including, most importantly, profound Cold War pressures to vindicate capitalism as against Soviet-style planning), American intellectuals in the 1950s did not recognize that what they were talking about was, in fact, capitalism’s tendency towards “death drive.”
“Productivity,” in other words, was not actually the problem being addressed in jeremiads about “output restriction”: the true problem was far deeper, existential, and apparently unsolvable. It was a problem inherent in capitalism itself. The dialectics of capitalist growth and crisis, the tensions between the commodification of material goods and the commodification of human labor time, and the extraordinary pressures imposed upon the natural world by the imperative for endless growth: all of these, strictly speaking, unsolvable dilemmas were papered over by capitalism’s constricted discourse of need, desire, want, duty. There was something else at work—negative, repetitive, aggressive––in the unfolding of capitalist history. Freud’s name for this “something else” was “death drive.”
Slavoj Žižek reminds us that the first mistake made by students of capitalism is to take capitalism’s own word for it that the system is “actually premised upon the satisfaction of human needs and desires.” Žižek insists that at the level of the system as a whole, “desire” is not the relevant category: rather, we are here in the realm of “death drive,” the “repetition compulsion,” in which satisfaction is always obtained, but at the price of a certain suicidal detachment from the rest of life. Similarly, Jodi Dean’s “Still Dancing: drive as a category of political economy” treats the speculative frenzy leading up to the 2007-2008 Crash as “repetition compulsion” personified: “Drive is a keeping on beyond pleasure, beyond use, beyond desire. In the reflexive turn of the drive, drive’s loop back round itself, activity becomes passivity, stuckness in a circuit…”
Most interestingly, for our purposes, drive’s loops might be intimately connected to the capitalist business cycle, its rhythms of boom and bust. Dean quotes Žižek (interpolating Marx):
Drive inheres to capitalism at a more fundamental, systemic level: drive is that which propels the whole capitalist machinery, it is the impersonal compulsion to engage in the endless circular movement of expanded self-reproduction. We enter the mode of drive the moment the circulation of money as capital becomes ‘an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement.’
This face of the drive seems particularly apt, for Dean, as a key to “the extreme capitalism of neoliberalism.” At some point, however, “doing the same thing over and over shifts from order into chaos.” Persistent repetition amplified the system’s pathologies, leading to overload and collapse. Sounding a Schumpeterian theme, Dean describes this entropic tendency as capitalism’s “creative destruction,” the “centrality of crisis to capitalism’s peculiar persistence.” Our question is whether “death drive” might not be as applicable to the pre-neoliberal era as to the Age of the Washington Consensus; whether, in fact, it might provide an explanation for why the apparent tedium vitae of the 1950s provided an opening for those who sought to unfetter capitalism’s productive forces from the apparently strangulating arms of the state.
Finally, it needs to be emphasized that “death drive” has a certain radical edge that makes it appealing to some Left intellectuals. Pushed beyond its limit, they wager, “death drive” might point towards a post-capitalist source of human motivation. Lacanian philosopher Adrian Johnston notes, for example, that thanks to the “death drive… the human individual isn’t entirely enslaved to the tyranny of the pragmatic utilitarian economy of well-being, to a happiness thrust forward by the twin authorities of the pleasure and reality principles.” There is a utopian strain to “death drive.” When we recall that the “pleasure principle,” beyond which Freud wishes to venture is straightforwardly that of the “economic point of view,” the grotesque “hedonic calculus” of Bentham, Johnston’s point of view begins to make sense:
Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand, the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all that we do, in all we say, in all we think; every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In a word a man may pretend to abjure their empire, but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while.
Mutatis mutandis, Bentham’s utilitarianism has served as the scaffolding upon which capitalist common sense has rested ever since. Because such a narrow and anemic presentation of motivation and desire will always be inadequate as a guide to the complexities of both political and libidinal economy—because it cannot cope with “drive” in either the Sigmund Freud or the Sumner Slichter sense––there seems to be the need for a notion more or less like “death drive” if we are to understand capitalist everyday life.
Thinking about discourses of “productivity” in the 1950s allows us to draw on the extraordinarily valuable insights of the Lacanians without necessarily agreeing that “death drive” in capitalism is best represented by the pathologies of financialization.
After all, repetition was the guiding value of the Keynesian state (while “disruptive innovation” is the motto of the current sad conjuncture). The postwar order was built on business cycle-oriented planning, steady but unremarkable returns on investments, a low level of unemployment (usually discursively refigured as “full employment”), stable family relations based on the paternal wage-earner, and a culture that was a routinized as any addict’s routine: prime-time TV, a regular cycle of several hundred films per year, radio Top 40s, and professional sports seasons.
What became a problem, in the ordinary neuroses of the postwar era, was desire (this, I think is the historical insight best captured by the otherwise overrated television show Mad Men): how to keep wanting (or, from the perspective of those involved in the sales effort, how to keep other wanting) after the conquest of nature, scarcity, and the business cycle: how to keep the boredom of Rostowian growth and countercyclical planning from feeling like an endless encirclement of the same loop, with each lap representing (at least according to the laws of thermodynamics) an incremental loss of energy.
At the same time, to many intellectuals and cultural workers, “repetition compulsion,” in the late 1950s and early 1960s also seemed to promise a way out (whether it delivered is a separate question). Is not “repetition” the common aegis under which we might consider John Cage, Andy Warhol, James Brown, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Tricia Brown, The Grateful Dead, William S. Burroughs, minimalist cinema, the gay underground, custom car and drag race culture, Alan Watts, the Black Panthers, the insistence of protestors intoning slogans in unison ad infinitum; the games devised by industrial workers to beat the time-study men documented by Donald Roy, Alvin Gouldner, and William F. Whyte; or the various returns (to Freud, to Marx, to Lenin) on the Left? Is it not the case that so many of the most powerful critical intellectual and aesthetic responses to capitalism’s “death drive” in the 1950s were marked by a perverse impulse to compulsively out-repeat capitalism’s “repetition compulsion”? If that is so, then perhaps there is still more to say about the movement of ideas through the brutalist corridors of 1950s-era capitalism.
 See Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, Revised and Expanded Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013) for the definitive account of the weakness of the “labor-management accord” narrative.
 In the work of Howard Brick and Daniel Geary, we have learned that putative renegades like C. Wright Mills worked squarely within the cognitive structures erected by equilibrium-obsessed thinkers like Talcott Parsons. See Howard Brick, Transcending Capitalism: Visions of a New Society in Modern American Thought (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), and Daniel Bell and the Decline of Intellectual Radicalism: Social Theory and Political Reconciliation in the 1940s (Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986); and Daniel Geary’s excellent study, Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
 See Harvey Swados, “The Myth of the Happy Worker,” in Leon Litwack, ed. The American Labor Movement. The recent uptick in left literature on the intellectual Right include books by Kim Phillips-Fein, Angus Burgin, Bethany Moreton, and Jennifer Burns.
 Walter Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion,” in Selected Writings, Volume One: 1913-1926, translated by Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: Belknap, 2004).
 David M. Gordon, “From the Drive System to the Capital-Labor Accord: Econometric Tests for the Transition Between Productivity Regimes.” Industrial Relations, Vol. 36. No 2, April 1997, 126. To a significant degree, the return of the “drive system,” in altered form, rested on unions’ failure to win legal recognition of foremen as laborers rather than management, a development that Nelson Lichtenstein points to as among the most consequential events in Eisenhower-era labor history. See “The Man in the Middle’: A Social History of Automobile Foremen” in A Contest of Ideas: Capital, Politics, and Labor (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013). See also the classic discussion of “The Foreman’s Empire” in Daniel Nelson, Managers and Workers.
 Sumner Slichter, Potentials of the American Economy: Selected Essays of Sumner H. Slichter. Edited by John T. Dunlop. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), 170-71.
 Slichter, 196; Nelson, 42-45.
 Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (San Francisco: City Lights, 1956).
 Swados, “The Myth of the Happy Worker.”
 My discussion draws on the arguments of Anson Rabinbach in his extraordinary book The Human Motor. Rabinbach writes about the obsession of nineteenth-century German scientists with the notion that society might discover a way to “conserve, deploy, and expand the energies of the laboring body,” harmonizing “the movements of the body with those of the industrial machine” and perhaps even overcoming “the stubborn resistance to perpetual work that distinguished the human body from a machine.” With the conquest of fatigue––“the endemic disorder of industrial society”––“the last obstacle to progress would be eliminated.” The language of labor power, Rabinbach writes, “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.”
 See Stephen P. Waring, Taylorism Transformed: Scientific Management Theory Since 1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).
 See Andrew Wender Cohen, The Racketeer’s Progress: Chicago and the Struggle for the Modern American Economy, 1900-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) and David Witwer, Shadow of the Racketeer: Scandal in Organized Labor (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009).
 Alexander R. Heron, Why Men Work (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1947).
 Solomon Fabricant, “Basic Facts on Productivity: An Introduction by Solomon Fabricant,” in John W. Kendrick, Productivity Trends in the United States (Princeton University Press for the National Bureau of Economic Research, 1961). National Bureau of Economic Research, Number 71, General Series, xxxvi.
 See Samuel Bowles, David Gordon, et al, Beyond the Waste Land.
 See William D. Nordhaus, “The Recent Productivity Slowdown.”
 Fabricant, “Basic Facts on Productivity,” xxxv.
 See Alan S. Blinder, ed., Paying for Productivity: A Look at the Evidence (Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1990).
 Sigmund Freud, Todd Dufresne, Gregory C. Richter, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Editions, 2011).
 Jodi Dean, “Still Dancing: drive as a category of political enjoyment,” International Journal of Žižek Studies, Volume Six, Number One).