Crash course on efficiency I

Read about the religious origin of “efficiency” and about how the term changed its meaning to a purely economic one

 It’s not so easy to write about “efficiency” if the word is
completely absent from your private vocabulary. That’s what I realised.
Of course, I know the word’s meaning as it has become a political and
media buzz word of late. After all, haven’t we been told to increase
“it” in so many fields in order to meet the EU expected norms? Yet, I
always thought of the word as of a cold, strange expression, which
doesn’t refer directly to anything important in my world. Thus, in what
follows I am presenting a completely non-objective attempt: First, in
understanding the word’s etymological history and development. Second,
in trying to identify my somewhat biased stance towards EFFICENCY.

 I. An etymological time travel
 II. Religion, capitalism and efficiency
 III. Efficiency and the Holocaust

I. An etymological time travel

 I think for a start it is very helpful to have a closer look at
the etymology of the word “efficiency”. It’s rather sure that it is
derived from the Latin form EFFICIENTEM (EFFICIENS). According to my
medieval dictionary of Latin (Latin used on historical Polish
territory) it meant “somebody, or something that’s causing, causative,
causative agent, effective cause”. But it is also connected to:
 – EFFICACIA-“activity, realisation, exertion, effort, power of
causativeness, importance, significance, magnitude, veracity,
fulfilment, effect”
 – EFFICAX-“able to achieve (accomplish) intending goal”
 – EFFICIALITER-“perfectly, properly”

 Efficient Alchemy – the 14th century

 In English, the word EFFICIENCY (EFFICIENT) has been used since
14th century. Interestingly enough it was first used in a divine,
theological, magic or alchemist context and was rather connected to the
supernatural, miraculous powers:

 – “The cause efficient” (Trevisa 1348)
 – “For cause efficient of Metals finde ye shall Only to be the vertue Minerall” (Norton 1477, in his alchemist writings)
 – “God is sayd to be the Efficient Cause of man; the office of
his efficiency is placed in ioyining the forme vnto the matter”
(T.Spencer 1628)
 – “The Efficient or Author of it, is…God himselfe” (Roberts 1649)
 – “These Prodigies are of Diabolical efficiency” (J. Spencer 1663)

 Approximately since the 17th century the meaning of EFFICIENCY started to broaden up:

 – “The efficient cause (of dew) is the temperate cold of the night” (Swan 1635)
 – “The common efficient cause of beauty” (Burke 1756)

 Efficient government and economics – the 19th century

 Around 19th century it gained more or less its modern meaning:

 – “Without an efficient government our Independence will cease to be a blessing” (Barlow 1787)
 – “Means to act efficiently as his advocates” (Foster 1828)
 – “He was an expert and efficient workman” (Mrs. Stowe 1850: “Uncle Tom’s”)
 – “Efficiency of engines” (Rankine 1855)
 – “There is a fair evidence that the system worked efficiently and well” (Froude 1856)
 – “The object of improvements in machines is to bring their efficiency as near to unity as possible” (Rankine 1858)

 From then on it consequently moved onwards to the now primary
definition that is rooted in the language of economics – of course
stripped of any “redundant” moral ballast:
 “That nothing more powerfully promotes the efficiency of labour than an abundance of fertile land” (Fawcett 1863)

 – “Industrial efficiency” (Shadwell 1906)
 – “Health and strength, psychical, mental, and moral… are the
basis of industrial efficiency, on which the production of material
wealth depends” (Marshall 1916)
 – “Economic efficiency- the maximum average output per employee” (Hanson 1965)

 I found probably the latest adding towards EFFICIENCY’s meaning
in a reference to modern living – THE EFFICIENCY APPARTMENT, that is a
one-room flat in which the number of facilities is limited to an
absolute minimum:
 “Irving Hoffman… spotted this room-for-rent sign down in
Greenwich Village; ‘One room efficiency, no bath, suitable for artist’”
(Gardner 1959)

II. Religion, Capitalism and Efficiency

 To understand the outlined transformations of the word EFFICIENCY
– from its religious to its economic usage, I think it is necessary to
follow the process in which “religious man” became an “economic” one.
That happened thanks to the protestant ethic and its influence on the
development of capitalism.
 As we know, capitalism came to fullness and peaked in modern
Western Europe. Whilst thinking about how it had happened, German
sociologist Max Weber contrasted two ideal types of “homo religiosus”
and “ homo oeconomicus”.
 The first one had its guiding orientation in spirit, religion and
moral values. A life in compliance with them guaranteed a salvation
after death. Such an attitude is characteristic for the medieval man,
who despised material goods and was in direct conflict with the
capitalistic “homo oeconomicus”.

Origins of the homo oeconomicus in prostetant ethics

The seemingly incomprehensible transition from one type to another
became possible – according to Weber’s explanation- by the appearance
of a link between the highly moral “homo religiosus” and the slightly
more prosaic “homo oeconomicus”. That link was provided by the
protestant ethic. Its two basic components, amazingly downright
contradicting, came from a religious doctrine. Protestant God was not
understood as a personification of love anymore, instead he became
almighty, incomprehensible and unreachable for one’s mind. The idea of
predestination was to be understood as the assignment to God’s Grace,
which was then utilised for the creation of a new work ideology.

 To make sure that one receives forgiveness, one has to “provoke”
God. Men are put through a kind of test after which – like in a
scientific experiment – the subject will know if it has succeeded or
not. The test is “work”. Success in business proves God’s blessing, it
becomes almost equal to God’s Grace. Efficiency in multiplying material
goods vindicates the receiving God’s mercy. The medieval motto ”pray
and work” is changed into “work is a form of prayer”. That kind of
attitude allows connecting the medieval “homo religiosus” with the
capitalist “homo oeconomicus”, the necessary balance being preserved by
the imperative for asceticism. Capitalism consisting of “ethic” and
“economy” was rational – it invested in the production of goods and
discouraged consumption. Work became the necessary way of finding
salvation for one’s soul. Thus, capitalism was sacralised.

 Simultaneously new values such as remunerativeness, rationalism
or efficiency and effectiveness were seen as the most important.
Because of these values the multiplication of wealth frowned upon by
God, became possible. Obtension of material goods was morally
sanctioned. However, they retained their stance against indulgence in
the pleasures of the body, deification of wordly possessions and
visible indications of luxury – overall, the irrational and inefficient
use of material goods.

Idolising rationalism in secular ideology of modern bureaucratic states

 These ascetic puritan ideals of how to live a decent life
couldn’t withstand the temptations of material wealth. The resignation
from any ethical dimension and idolising of rationalism and efficiency
often led to many aberrations. Rationalism and efficiency became values
on their own. The multiplication of wealth started to be a form of
sport (yet this “discipline” remained practised by some few). A giant
bureaucratic machine was brought to life characterised by Weber as
“precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity,
discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of
material and personal costs – these are raised to the optimum point in
the strictly bureaucratic administration…Bureaucratization offers
above all the optimum possibility for carrying through the principle of
specializing administrative functions according to purely objective
considerations …The ‘objective’ discharge of business according to
calculable rules and ‘without regard for persons’”.

III. Efficiency and the Holocaust

 This formal and ethically blind pursuit of efficiency brought
about, fuelled and aided immoral acts in last century, including the
Holocaust. In “Modernity and Holocaust” Zygmunt Bauman notes: “I
propose to treat the Holocaust as a rare, yet significant and reliable,
test of hidden possibilities of modern society”.

 The Nazi Death Camps were perfectly organised factories, which
co-operated well with the other branches of the Nazi’s industry – the
railway transportation system, chemical factories and many more. Even
companies from other countries than Germany such as “Ford”, “IBM” among
many others co-operated. And this whole system had been projected by
well-educated engineers and managed by specialists using the best
technology and social engineering.

 The fact that the “Endlösung” was only possible because of the
bureaucratic culture is a most shocking assertion. Even more Bauman
states that “in Weber’s exposition of modern bureaucracy, rational
spirit, principle of efficiency, scientific mentality, relegation of
values to the realm of subjectivity etc. No mechanism was recorded that
was capable of excluding the possibility of Nazi’s excesses; that,
moreover, there was nothing in Weber’s ideal types that would
necessitate the description of the activities of the Nazi state as
excesses”. 20th century civilisation was not the Holocaust’s sufficient
condition; it was, however, most certainly its necessary condition and
many of the social factors that made Auschwitz possible are still

 The Holocaust is probably the most tragic case of our
civilisation (so in praise of efficiency) producing pure evil. I think
it is especially scary that what Weber used to call “bureaucratic
culture” is the dominating force in contemporary politics and economy.
Maybe my “private enquiry” led me to far-fetched conclusions. I,
however, find the term efficiency to be full of worrying potential, a
worry that becomes the more vivid when recently I read an advertisement
of a company increasing efficiency in “human resources” management.

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