The Theory of Business Enterprise/Chapter 2

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The Theory of Business Enterprise by Thorstein Veblen
Chapter 2: The Machine Process

In its bearing on modern life and modern business, the "machine process" means something more comprehensive and less external than a mere aggregate of mechanical appliances for the mediation of human labor. It means that, but it means something more than that. The civil engineer, the mechanical engineer, the navigator, the mining expert, the industrial chemist and mineralogist, the electrician, -- the work of all these falls within the lines of the modern machine process, as well as the work of the inventor who devises the appliances of the process and that of the mechanician who puts the inventions into effect and oversees their working. The scope of the process is larger than the machine.(1*) In those branches of industry in which machine methods have been introduced, many agencies which are not to be classed as mechanical appliances, simply, have been drawn into the process, and have become integral factors in it. Chemical properties of minerals, e.g., are counted on in the carrying out of metallurgical processes with much the same certainty and calculable effect as are the motions of those mechanical appliances by whose use the minerals are handled. The sequence of the process involves both the one and the other, both the apparatus and the materials, in such intimate interaction that the process cannot be spoken of simply as an action of the apparatus upon the materials. It is not simply that the apparatus reshapes the materials; the materials reshape themselves by the help of the apparatus. Similarly in such other processes as the refining of petroleum, oil, or sugar; in the work of the industrial chemical laboratories; in the use of wind, water, or electricity, etc.

Wherever manual dexterity, the rule of thumb, and the fortuitous conjunctures of the seasons have been supplanted by a reasoned procedure on the basis of a systematic knowledge of the forces employed, there the mechanical industry is to be found, even in the absence of intricate mechanical contrivances. It is a question of the character of the process rater than a question of the complexity of the contrivances employed. Chemical, agricultural, and animal industries, as carried on by the characteristically modern methods and in due touch with the market, are to be included in the modern complex of mechanical industry.(2*)

No one of the mechanical processes carried on by the use of a given outfit of appliances is independent of other processes going on elsewhere. Each draws upon and presupposes the proper working of many other processes of a similarly mechanical character. None of the processes in the mechanical industries is self-sufficing. Each follows some and precedes other processes in an endless sequence, into which each fits and to the requirements of which each must adapt its own working. The whole concert of industrial operations is to be taken as a machine process, made up of interlocking detail processes, rather than as a multiplicity of mechanical appliances each doing its particular work in severalty. This comprehensive industrial process draws into its scope and turns to account all branches of knowledge that have to do with the material sciences, and the whole makes a more or less delicately balanced complex of sub-processes.(3*)

Looked at in this way the industrial process shows two well-marked general characteristics: (a) the running maintenance of interstitial adjustments between the several sub-processes or branches of industry, wherever in their working they touch one another in the sequence of industrial elaboration; and (b) an unremitting requirement of quantitative precision, accuracy in point of time and sequence, in the proper inclusion and exclusion of forces affecting the outcome, in the magnitude of the various physical characteristics (weight, size, density, hardness, tensile strength, elasticity, temperature, chemical reaction, actinic sensitiveness, etc.) of the materials handled as well as of the appliances employed. This requirement of mechanical accuracy and nice adaptation to specific uses has led to a gradual pervading enforcement of uniformity to a reduction to staple grades and staple character in the materials handled, and to a thorough standardizing of tools and units of measurement. Standard physical measurements are of the essence of the machine's regime.(4*)

The modern industrial communities show an unprecedented uniformity and precise equivalence in legally adopted weights and measures. Something of this kind would be brought about by the needs of commerce, even without the urgency given to the movement for uniformity by the requirements of the machine industry. But within the industrial field the movement for standardization has outrun the urging of commercial needs, and has penetrated every corner of the mechanical industries. The specifically commercial need of uniformity in weights and measures of merchantable goods and in monetary units has not carried standardization in these items to the extent to which the mechanical need of the industrial process has carried out a sweeping standardization in the means by which the machine process works, as well as in the products which it turns out.

As a matter of course, tools and the various structural materials used are made of standard sizes, shapes, and gauges. When the dimensions, in fractions of an inch or in millimetres, and the weight, in fractions of a pound or in grammes, are given, the expert foreman or workman, confidently and without reflection, infers the rest of what need be known of the uses to which any given item that passes under his hand may be turned. The adjustment and adaptation of part to part and of process to process has passed out of the category of craftsmanlike skill into the category of mechanical standardization. Hence, perhaps, the greatest, most wide-reaching gain in productive celerity and efficiency through modern methods, and hence the largest saving of labor in modern industry.

Tools, mechanical appliances and movements, and structural materials are scheduled by certain conventional scales and gauges; and modern industry has little use for, and can make little use of, what does not conform to the standard. What is not competently standardized calls for too much of craftsmanlike skill, reflection, and individual elaboration, and is therefore not available for economical use in the processes. Irregularity, departure from standard measurements in any of the measurable facts, is of itself a fault in any item that is to find a use in the industrial process, for it brings delay, it detracts from its ready usability in the nicely adjusted process into which it is to go; and a delay at any point means a more or less far-reaching and intolerable retardation of the comprehensive industrial process at large. Irregularity in products intended for industrial use carries a penalty to the nonconforming producer which urges him to fall into line and submit to the required standardization.

The materials and moving forces of industry are undergoing a like reduction to staple kinds, styles, grades, and gauge.(5*) Even such forces as would seem at first sight not to lend themselves to standardization, either in their production or their use, are subjected to uniform scales of measurement; as, e.g., water-power, steam, electricity, and human labor. The latter is perhaps the least amenable to standardization, but, for all that, it is bargained for, delivered, and turned to account on schedules of time, speed, and intensity which are continually sought to be reduced to a more precise measurement and a more sweeping uniformity.

The like is true of the finished products. Modern consumers in great part supply their wants with commodities that conform to certain staple specifications of size, weight, and grade. The consumer (that is to say the vulgar consumer) furnishes his hose, his table, and his person with supplies of standard weight and measure, and he can to an appreciable degree specify his needs and his consumption in the notation of the standard gauge. As regards the mass of civilized mankind, the idiosyncrasies of the individual consumers are required to conform to the uniform gradations imposed upon consumable goods by the comprehensive mechanical processes of industry. "Local color" it is said, is falling into abeyance in modern life, and where it is still found it tends to assert itself in units of the standard gauge.

From this mechanical standardization of consumable goods it follows, on the one hand, that the demand for goods settles upon certain defined lines of production which handle certain materials of definite grade, in certain, somewhat invariable forms and proportions; which leads to well-defined methods and measurements in the processes of production, shortening the average period of "ripening" that intervenes between the first raw stage of the product and its finished shape, and reducing the aggregate stock of goods necessary to be carried for the supply of current wants, whether in the raw or in the finished form.(6*) Standardization means economy at nearly all points of the process of supplying goods, and at the same time it means certainty and expedition at neatly all points in the business operations involved in meeting current wants. Besides this, the standardization of goods means that the interdependence of industrial processes is reduced to more definite terms than before the mechanical standardization came to its present degree of elaborateness and rigor. The margin of admissible variation, in time, place, form, and amount, is narrowed. Materials, to answer the needs of standardized industry, must be drawn from certain standard sources at a definite rate of supply. Hence any given detail industry depends closely on receiving its supplies from certain, relatively few, industrial establishments whose work belongs earlier in the process of elaboration. And it ma similarly depend on certain other, closely defined, industrial establishments for a vent of its own specialization and standardization product.(7*) It may likewise depend in a strict manner on special means of transportation.(8*)

Machine production leads to a standardization of services as well as of goods. So, for instance, the modern means of communication and the system into which these means are organized are also of the nature of a mechanical process, and in this mechanical process of service and intercourse the life of all civilized men is more or less intimately involved. To make effective use of the modern system of communication in any way or all of its ramifications (streets, railways, steamship lines, telephone, telegraph, postal service, etc.), men are required to adapt their needs and their motions to the exigencies of the process whereby this civilized method of intercourse is carried into effect. The service is standardized, and therefore the use of it is standardized also. Schedules of time, place, and circumstance rule throughout. The scheme of everyday life must be arranged with a strict regard to the exigencies of the process whereby this range of human needs is served, if full advantage is to be taken of this system of intercourse, which means that, in so far, one's plans and projects must be conceived and worked out in terms of those standard units which the system imposes.

For the population of the towns and cities, at least, much the same rule holds true of the distribution of consumable goods. So, also, amusements and diversions, much of the current amenities of life, are organized into a more or less sweeping process to which those who would benefit by the advantages offered must adapt their schedule of wants and the disposition of their time and effort. The frequency, duration, intensity, grade, and sequence are not, in the main, matters for the free discretion of the individuals who participate. Throughout the scheme of life of that portion of mankind that clusters about the centres of modern culture the industrial process makes itself felt and enforces a degree of conformity to the canon of accurate quantitative measurement. There comes to prevail a degree of standardization and precise mechanical adjustment of the details of everyday life, which presumes a facile and unbroken working of all those processes that minister to these standardized human wants.

As a result of this superinduced mechanical regularity of life, the livelihood of individuals is, over large areas, affected in an approximately uniform manner by any incident which at all seriously affects the industrial process at any point.(9*)

As was noted above, each industrial unit, represented by a given industrial "plant", stands in close relations of interdependence with other industrial processes going forward elsewhere, near or far away, from which it receives supplies -- materials, apparatus, and the like -- and to which it turns over its output of products and waste, or on which it depends for auxiliary work, such as transportation. The resulting concatenation of industries has been noticed by most modern writers. It is commonly discussed under the head of the division of labor. Evidently the prevalent standardization of industrial means, methods, and products greatly increases the reach of this concatenation of industries, at the same time that it enforces a close conformity in point of time, volume and character of the product, whether the product is goods or services.(10*)

By virtue of this concatenation of processes the modern industrial system at large bears the character of a comprehensive, balanced mechanical process. In order to an efficient working of this industrial process at large, the various constituent sub-processes must work in due coordination throughout the whole. Any degree of maladjustment in the interstitial coordination of this industrial process at large in some degree hinders its working. Similarity, any given detail process or any industrial plant will do its work to full advantage only when due adjustment is had between its work and the work done by the rest. The higher the degree of development reached by a given industrial community, the more comprehensive and urgent becomes this requirement of interstitial adjustment. And the more fully a given industry has taken on the character of a mechanical process, and the more extensively and closely it is correlated in its work with other industries that precede or follow it in the sequence of elaboration, the more urgent, other things equal, is the need of maintaining the proper working relations with these other industries, the greater is the industrial detriment suffered from any derangement of the accustomed working relations, and the greater is the industrial gain to be derived from a closer adaptation and a more facile method of readjustment in the event of a disturbance, -- the greater is also the chance for an effectual disturbance of industry at the particular point. This mechanical concatenation of industrial processes makes for solidarity in the administration of any group of related industries, and more remotely it makes for solidarity in the management of the entire industrial traffic of the community.

A disturbance at any point, whereby any given branch of industry fails to do its share in the work of the system at large, immediately affects the neighbouring or related branches which come before or after it in the sequence, and is transmitted through their derangement to the remoter portions of the system. The disturbance is rarely confined to the single plant or the single line of production first affected, but spreads in some measure to the rest. A disturbance at any given point brings more or less derangement to the industrial process at large. So that any maladjustment of the system involves a larger waste than simply the disabling of one or two members in the complex industrial structure.

So much is clear, that the keeping of the balance in the comprehensive machine process of industry is a matter of the gravest urgency if the productive mechanism is to proceed with its work in an efficient manner, so as to avoid idleness, waste, and hardship. The management of the various industrial plants and processes in due correlation with all the rest, and the supervision of the interstitial adjustments of the system, are commonly conceived to be a work of greater consequence to the community's well-being than any of the detail work involved in carrying on a given process of production. This work of interstitial adjustment, and in great part also the more immediate supervision of the various industrial processes, have become urgent only since the advent of the machine industry and in proportion as the machine industry has advanced in compass and consistency.

It is by business transactions that the balance of working relations between the several industrial units is maintained or restored, adjusted and readjusted, and it is on the same basis and by the same method that the affairs of each industrial unit are regulated. The relations in which any independent industrial concern stands to its employees, as well as to other concerns, are always reducible to pecuniary terms. It is at this point that the business man comes into the industrial process as a decisive factor. The organization of the several industries as well as the interstitial adjustments and discrepancies of the industrial process at large are of the nature of pecuniary transactions and obligations. It therefore rests with the business men to make or mar the running adjustments of industry. The larger and more close-knit and more delicately balanced the industrial system, and the larger the constituent units, the larger and more far-reaching will be the effect of each business move in the field.


1. Cf. Cooke Taylor, Modern Factory System, pp. 74-77.

2. Even in work that lies so near the fortuities of animate nature as dairying, stock-breeding, and the improvement of crop plants, a determinate, reasoned routine replaces the rule of thumb. By mechanical control of his materials the dairyman, e.g., selectively determines the rate and kind of the biological processes that change his raw material into finished product. The stock-breeder's aim is to reduce the details of the laws of heredity, as they apply within his field, to such definite terms as will afford him a technologically accurate routine of breeding, and then to apply this technological breeding process to the production of such varieties of stock as will, with the nearest approach to mechanical exactness and expedition, turn the raw materials of field and meadow into certain specified kinds and grades of finished product. The like is true of the plant-breeders. Agricultural experiment stations and bureaus, in all civilized countries, are laboratories working toward an effective technological control of biological factors, with a view to eliminating fortuitous, disserviceable, and useless elements from the processes of agricultural production, and so reducing these processes to a calculable, expeditious, and wasteless routine.

3. Cf. Sombart, Moderne Kapitalismus, vol. II, ch. III.

4. Twelfth Census (U.S.): "Manufactures," pt. I, p. xxxvi.

5.. E.g., lumber, coal, paper, wool and cotton, grain, leather, cattle for the packing houses. All these and many others are to an increasing extent spoken for, delivered, and disposed of under well-defined staple grades as to quality and dimensions, weight and efficiency.

6. Well shown in the case of wheat and flour; but the like is true as regards the stocks of other commodities carried by producers, jobbers, retailers, and consumers.

7. Well illustrated by the interdependence of the various branches of iron and steel production.

8. As seen, e.g., in the dependence of oil production or oil refining on the pipe lines and their management, or in the dependence of the prairie farmers on the railway lines, etc.

9. It may be noted in this connection, on the one hand, that a population which is in no degree habituated to the modern industrial process is unable to adapt its mode of life to the requirements of this method of supplying human wants, and so can derive but little benefit, and possibly great discomfort, from a forcible intrusion of the machine industry; as, for instance, many of the outlying barbarian peoples with whom the Western industrial culture is now enforcing a close contact. On the other hand, it is also true that even the most adequately trained modern community, among whom the machine industry is best at home, does not respond with fruitless alacrity to the demands and opportunities which this system holds out. The adaptation of habits of life and of ideals and aspirations to the exigencies of the machine process is not nearly complete, nor does the untrained man instinctively fall into line with it. Even the best-trained, severely disciplined man of the industrial towns has his seasons of recalcitrancy.

10. The dependence of one process upon the working of the others is sometimes very strict, as, for instance, in the various industries occupied with iron, including the extraction and handling of the ore and other raw materials. In other cases the correlation is less strict, or even very slight, as, e.g., that between the newspaper industry and lumbering, through the wood-pulp industry, the chief component of the modern newspaper being wood-pulp.