Abstract: Matter Matters to Authority: Some Aspects of Soviet Industrial Management in the 1930s from a Multi-Sited Perspective

Yves Cohen


Scholars of action and management rarely contemplate the role of matter in creating authority. In this paper, I intend to examine if and how actors use organized matter (tools, machines, plants, order in the space, landscape, and so forth) to contribute to the formation of distributed authority. Paradoxically, in the most intense years of Stalin's rule over Soviet industry, matter did not play its usual role of contributing to the guidance of human action. Because planning proved unable to foresee all the necessary relations, the intricate and intertwining hierarchies were unable to maintain the continuity of the productive flow, which, in turn, could not act as a material basis for authority. So, more than anywhere else, the leaders were "leading with their vocal cords." Institutions put into play to prevent repetitive breakdowns in the flow of production, such as the law, were unable to fulfill the task, and were in turn subject to a loss of authority. Even very technical tools of management, such as dispatching, could not solve basic problems plaguing Soviet industry. Nevertheless, the authority of matter had an effect through the press and information tools—that is, as images. Only war, removing all controls and rigidity, gave leeway to the necessary spontaneous coordination relationships resting on the knowledge of emergency that formed under the harshest elements of Stalin's rule.

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