Tag Archives: business culture

Nothing to lose but your chains.

Born on the eve of the Civil War to a slaveholder in Maryland, Gantt’s father, Virgil Gantt, owned more than sixty men, women, and children. As Gantt wrote, “The term ‘task master’ is an old one in our language; it symbolizes the time, now happily passing away, when men were compelled to work, not for their own interests, but for those of some one else.” Gantt’s goal was not to abolish this old system but to adapt it to modern needs. As he explained, “The general policy of the past has been to drive, but the era of force must give way to that of knowledge, and the policy of the future will be to teach and to lead, to the advantage of all concerned.”

In a sense, scientific management replicated slavery’s extractive techniques while jettisoning the institution itself. Gantt’s rhetoric was not necessarily of distance but of progress; he purportedly liked to say that “scientific management marked a great step forward from slave labor.” James Mapes Dodge, a Philadelphia manufacturer and early supporter of Taylor, explained in 1913 that “we cannot tell who first liberated the germ idea of Scientific Management, as it was born to the world in the first cry of anguish that escaped the lips of the lashed slave.” Dodge’s reference was metaphorical, to a vague and distant past where slavery prevailed, not to the slave South. But he understood that “the present generation” had inherited “from the past the relationship of master and slave” and saw it as the job of scientific management to move beyond it.


In some cases, the evidence for slavery can be literally read between the lines. Take the example of Gantt, whose task and bonus system so closely paralleled the one used by some slaveholders. Gantt is still sometimes profiled in modern management textbooks and web guides. In a phrase copied between them so frequently that it is hard to be sure of its original author, Gantt is said to have been born to a family of prosperous farmers in Maryland, but that “his early years were marked by some deprivation as the Civil War brought about changes to the family fortunes.” Those “changes,” so easily elided, were wrought by the more than sixty enslaved people who escaped from the plantation and took their freedom. The legacy of slavery is simultaneously acknowledged and erased.

–Caitlin Rosenthal, “How Slavery Inspired Modern Business Management,” adapted from Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management (2018)


Startup evangelism

“Is this a book about building better businesses or building better people and cultures? To Thiel’s credit, these issues are deeply interrelated if not, in some sense, the same. In this regard, Zero to One possesses a distinctly moral—at times, almost apocalyptic—dimension. Thiel’s vision isn’t just entrepreneurial; it’s also ethical and romantic.

The question, “What valuable company is nobody building?” is a derivative of his central question, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” There are still secrets to uncover, frontiers to explore, he emphasizes: Thiel wants to re-instill a sense of wonder, to help us see the world “as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first.” It’s these touches that lend Thiel the aura of being something more than just another Silicon Valley millionaire, even if he does quote Shakespeare like a soundbite.

But the book’s humanist strain also undermines Thiel’s notorious denigration of higher education. Thiel believes that academic degrees have become status markers of dubious benefit to society and the individual. He has compared university administrators to sub-prime mortgage brokers and tenured professors to sixteenth-century Catholic priests selling indulgences in the form of diplomas—secular salvation for modern souls. The Thiel Foundation offers students under age 20 scholarships to pursue a startup instead of going to school.

But the critical inquiry Thiel advocates is exactly what a liberal arts curriculum is designed to teach. “Will this business still be around a decade from now?” can only be answered, he believes, by “think[ing] critically about the qualitative characteristics of your business.” His book is, perhaps inadvertently, a plea for the necessity of humanist thought in the business world. This alone is fairly radical in a business culture that tends to think a literature degree means you can identify a simile and not much else. Thiel himself has benefited—financially and intellectually—from this background: Zero to One could only be written by someone who possesses not only tremendous business expertise, but also a deep and broad education. His insistence that you can get along without the taint of a formal education is hypocritical at best.”

Elizabeth Winkler, “Peter Thiel Is a Closet Humanist”