Grey Room

Taylorism Transfigured: Industrial Rhythm and the British Factory

Whitney Laemmli

Rudolf Laban demonstrating Kinetographie, ca. 1930.


Though the study of the relationship between spiritual practice and the rationalizing, maximizing, and profit-seeking impulses of capitalism is certainly not new—taking its most famous form in Max Weber’s 1905 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism—interest in the subject has recently been rekindled. But while Weber posited that, by the early twentieth century, the religious underpinnings of the Protestant ethic had become largely vestigial, new research by scholars like Bethany Moreton, Kathryn Lofton, Fred Turner, Richard J. Callahan Jr., and Chad E. Seales has brought fresh attention to the ongoing intertwining of religion and industrial (and post industrial) capitalism. Via close historical analysis, this scholarship has revealed how modern industry and spiritual practice have regularly been codependent, working in tandem “to regulate bodies—geological, demographic, and biological—and fit them into the requisite disciplines of modern labor and consumption.” At the same time, new work in religious studies has shown how religion is often “not only lived but produced within nonreligious sectors,” drawing attention to the significance of practices previously dismissed as mere “spirituality” and sites beyond the church or synagogue. Scholars in multiple fields have also begun to appreciate how the close study of technological systems and material tools—from office cubicles to mining processes—can help reveal how these relations functioned on the ground, creating new forms of expertise, experience, and discipline.

In the article that follows, I examine one telling example of this coproduction, focusing on a technology designed to spiritualize the mid-twentieth century factory. Specifically, I explore the development and use of “Industrial Rhythm,” a system for recording and controlling the bodily movements of factory workers, adopted by Mars but also by other companies in Britain in the 1940s. Created by a German choreographer and movement theorist named Rudolf Laban and a British cost and works accountant named Frederick Lawrence, Industrial Rhythm’s stated purpose was to produce both maximal efficiency and new forms of spiritual engagement, incentivizing workers not with higher wages but with fulfilled souls. But unlike the Weberian paradigm in which steady toil—and the attendant accumulation of wealth—served as a signifier of divine election, Laban and Lawrence sought to make industrial labor a deeply fulfilling gift in and of itself.