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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Before the Surrogate of Motivation: Motivation and the meaning of work in the Golden Age of the American whaling industry

In an earlier paper, Beyond the Surrogate of Motivation (Sievers 1986; cf. 1994a, 1995), the author posits that the fragmentation of organizational work has led to the loss of meaning and thus to the need for the invention of motivation in the second half of the 20th century. In this paper, the focus is on the meaning of work in organizational contexts during early US industrialization before motivation was invented as a management tool specifically the American whaling industry. The paper will explore how and to what extent the meaning of work was ultimately lost and 'perverted', when the whaling industry turned from a profession into a capitalist business and reached its peak by the early 1840s. As the working conditions of the ordinary seamen were wretched, 'it was a golden age for owners ... but ... an iron age for the men who did the work' (Morison 1921/1979, 319). While organization studies, and psychoanalytic ones in particular, focus predominantly on contemporary organizations and their respective working conditions as their objects of study, the dramatic changes in the American whaling industry during the late 18th and the first half of the 19th century provide insight into some of the conscious and unconscious dynamics underlying early American industrialization. The whaling industry thus reveals how the original 'spirit of whaling' deteriorated into a capitalist one that finds its expression in the increasing alienation of the work force, its exploitation by ship-owners and captains alike and the exclusive pursuit of money and wealth by ship-owners.'