Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century
Marxian economics, as I have written more than once in these pages, continues to exert its powerful intellectual influence, even though the formal study of Marxism hardly exists in American universities. One of the reasons for this persisting influence is that Marxian economics bears on many problems that are ignored or lightly passed over by conventional economics. For example, during the 1930s and 1940s Marxism commanded special interest because of its concern with capitalist breakdown. Then during the 1950s and 1960s, Marxian economics again seemed pertinent because of its concentration on the global effects of capitalist market forces. In recent years still another “Marxian” economic question has become urgent. This is the problem of the working life of man.
The problem of work has always absorbed Marxian economics. Indeed, this absorption has given it a distinctive attribute—its division of the economic world into two parts. One of these, which also engages the attention of non-Marxian economics, is the “sphere of circulation.” Here is the familiar world of commodity exchange, of money, of “value” seeking “realization” as the labor-filled products of the economic process are put to the final test of salability. Here are also technical problems that have engaged economists for over half a century, such as the “transformation problem”—the famous puzzle of finding a consistent means of moving from Marx’s abstract labor-time into the ordinary cash of everyday prices.
The problem of circulation is enormously important in Marxian economics, for this is where the capitalist economic system meets its test of cash success or failure. Yet, strangely enough, the pure economics of this aspect of Marxism is not radically dissimilar from conventional economics. After all, conventional economics also deals with money and the exchange of commodities, and also recognizes the difficulty of transforming costs into receipts. More important, the fundamental assumptions of conventional economics about the behavior of workers and capitalists are also much the same as those of Marxism.
Indeed, to the extent that conventional economists accept the crucial Marxian assumption that technology tends to displace labor, they are driven to very “Marxian” conclusions about the impending malfunction of the economy. I would even go so far as to say that the essential difference between Marxian and non-Marxian economics, at this level, lies in the failure of non-Marxists to attach historical significance to the “models” they construct, so that no conclusions are ever drawn about the changing institutional consequences of economic growth or decline.
But Marxian economics has never been solely concerned with the sphere of circulation. It embraces as well a second “sphere” of the economic world, production, in a manner almost wholly foreign to conventional economic analysis. Conventional economics is, of course, vitally concerned with production. But mainly it studies those aspects of production that directly manifest themselves in the sphere of circulation—for instance, the purchase of the services of the factors of production, or the calculus by which entrepreneurs combine factors to achieve lowest cost per unit. Meanwhile, the actual social process of production—the flesh and blood act of work, the relationships of sub- and superordination by which work is organized and controlled—are almost strangers to the conventional economist. We catch a pale glimmer of the quality of working life in neoclassical discussions of the “disutility” of labor, some vague sense of the chain of command within the office or factory in “organization theory,” and an awareness that labor itself takes on special forms under the imperatives of a profit-maximizing system in the idea of a “division” of labor. Nonetheless, the world of work lies mainly sub-merged, invisible and ignored, beneath the surface of the exchange relations on which ordinary economics normally turns its gaze.
Until recently Marxian economics has also passed rather hurriedly over the sphere of production, occupying itself with the problems of crisis and expansion I mentioned above. But in the past few years, a number of radical economists, prominent among them Samuel Bowles, Herbert Gintis, Barry Bluestone, Stephen Marglin, and David Gordon, have begun to call attention to this forgotten subject. For example, in a much discussed paper, “What Do Bosses Do?,” Marglin has examined the organization of factory labor as a means of securing social control rather than as a means of achieving material “efficiency.” Bowles and Gintis have looked into the role of the educational system, not as a source of “human capital” for the work force but as a source of socialization—accustoming young workers-to-be to the rhythms, reward systems, disciplines, and precepts of the world of work into which they will enter. Gordon and Bluestone, among others, have examined the characteristics of the labor “market,” identifying the barriers that create a dual labor system—one part of which terminates in dead-end jobs while the other opens into more varied and lucrative employments—and have discussed the uses of such a dual system within capitalism. Yet until the appearance of Harry Braverman’s remarkable book, there has been no broad view of the labor process as a whole, no full-length examination of the form and feeling of the act of labor as we find it in the contemporary capitalist world.
Braverman’s study is subtitled “The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century,” for the theme that Braverman emphasizes is the gradual transformation of work from an active, inquiring, adaptive exercise of human energy and ingenuity into an obedient, dumb, and mechanical application of human strength, devoid of all that is original, ingenious, or creative. Braverman does not present this theme in polemical fashion. His survey, written with great force and beauty, is objective, if not detached; no hint of sentimental regret is wasted on the conditions of labor in the past. What we see, rather, is the manner in which the act of labor is altered under the aegis of capitalist production—an alteration whose conscious purpose is mainly to render labor more “productive” (as productivity is measured in the sphere of circulation) but whose secondary effect is to deform and degrade the actions that laborers must perform.
This degradation of labor begins with the systematic destruction of craft skills. Until the industrial revolution, Braverman writes,
the craft or skilled trade was the basic unit, the elementary cell of the labor process. In each craft, the worker was presumed to be the master of a body of traditional knowledge, and methods and procedures were left to his or her discretion. In each such worker reposed the accumulated knowledge of the materials and processes by which production was accomplished in the craft. The potter, tanner, smith, weaver, carpenter, baker, miller, glassmaker, cobbler, etc., each representing a branch of the social division of labor, was a repository of human technique for the labor process of that branch. The worker combined in mind and body the concepts and physical dexterities of the specialty: technique, understood in this way, is, as has often been observed, the predecessor and progenitor of science.
The center of Braverman’s study is the manner in which this organic form of work becomes shredded, atomized, and sucked dry of skill under the imperatives of a production process in which every unit of output is celebrated and every unit of input merely calculated.
A central figure in this narrative is Frederick Winslow Taylor—an engineer extraordinary in his use both of materials and of men. Indeed, the secret of Taylor’s “scientific management” was his ability to regard men as nothing more than the agents of a series of motions, most of which could be performed more reliably or rapidly (although not more economically) by machines. The trick of scientific management was thus to reduce work to a series of body movements, entirely devoid of any meaning other than the advancement of the end product toward completion. Despite the growth of much more sophisticated ideas of industrial psychology, this mechanical perception continues to dominate the planning of the labor process in industrial production today. Braverman cites these “basic motion symbols” from a textbook in industrial engineering:
“Each of these motions,” Braverman explains, “is described in machine terms. For example, Bending, we are told, is ‘trunk movement with hips as hinge….’ Body, leg, and foot motions are set forth for the various movements of Bend, Sit, Stop, Walk, etc., for varying distances. And finally a formula is given for Eye Travel Time: ET=15.2 × T/D TMU [where TMU is defined as one hundred-thousandth of an hour].”
One could imagine such studies serving a useful function, perhaps in charting the reactions of a pilot and designing equipment that would best suit his physiological limitations. Applied to industrial processes, however, time and motion studies are not used to make factory work a more agreeable or restful or challenging activity—only a faster and more “efficient” one. Yet, to most conventional economists, making work routine or atomized serves a useful purpose. If it does not necessarily enhance the physical well-being of the worker, it certainly improves his “productivity” and his income. Moreover the conventional economist has no difficulty in showing that men are willing to endure the monotonies of work in exchange for higher income, because they have “voted with their feet”—moving out of the more physically varied but low-paying tasks of “unskilled” labor into the more physically disciplined but better-paying “semi-skilled” work of the factory or the store.
But we see in Braverman’s book that this mass internal migration was not a process in which labor freely adapted its working habits to the adventitious arrival of a new form of technology. Instead we come to understand that the technology of the production process was continually and consciously reorganized by engineers and managers in order to fracture the skills of the working force. This was done partly to enhance the speed and regularity of the flow of output but also partly to prevent small knots of skilled men from attaining an undue degree of control over the work flow. No other lesson emerges more clearly from Braverman’s study than that technology and science are not wholly independent variables in history but social forces that adapt themselves to the needs and exigencies of the social milieu in which they are established.
Braverman is particularly concerned with this question because he recognizes that technology under the Soviet government has been put to much the same use as it has by corporate management. He argues that new epochs of social relations inherit the productive arrangements of their predecessors, thereby accounting for the Soviet degradation of labor primarily as a phenomenon of cultural lag (Lenin was a great admirer of Taylor!).
How long this lag may endure, however, we do not know: as Braverman says, it took capitalism centuries to work out its own mode of production. Thus without disputing Braverman’s arguments against a mindless technological determinism, I suspect that the technical fragmentation of work will not be easily got rid of in our time. The machine has stamped the modern mind with notions of efficiency that go very deep, and that will not, I think, lose their force unless future societies shed not only capitalist but industrial assumptions. China aside, there is as yet no such intent expressed by any socialist state, and we are not yet certain to what extent men run machines in China, rather than vice versa.
Although the subservience of science and technology to capitalism is one of the main concerns of Braverman’s book, its larger contribution, in my view, lies in making vivid the degrading experience of labor in modern times—a crucial part of the economic process that remains invisible in conventional economic analysis. For example, Braverman carefully examines—and totally rebuts—the widely shared assumption that labor skills have improved as a consequence of automation. He is even more devastating in exploding the idea of a general improvement of skills as a consequence of the movement from “unskilled” to “semi-skilled” occupations. As he writes, “It is only in the census statistics, and not in terms of direct assessment, that an assembly line worker is presumed to have greater skill than a fisherman or an oysterman, the forklift operator greater skill than the longshoreman, the parking lot attendant greater skill than the lumberman and the raftsman.”
As part of his scrutiny of the content of work, Braverman inquires whether the growth of white-collar occupations spells the end of a “working class,” thereby refuting the basic Marxian tenet of a rising industrial proletariat. He makes an impressive case for the proposition that the actual labor processes in the new service occupations are not only also “degraded” by the use of the same techniques that we find in the factory but that the service trades, once characterized by independent or quasi-professional relations between buyers and sellers of labor, are now reduced to a “wage labor” relationship, exactly as we find them in the traditional capitalist sectors.
Once again, I cannot fault Braverman’s argument. But his demonstration of the “proletarian” reality of the new working class opens an important question: If the working class has become more proletarian, why has a proletarian will not also emerged, sharpened, as Marx thought, to a fine revolutionary edge?
One possible reason lies in the effect of the degradation of labor on thought itself. Adam Smith, who first expounded the usefulness of the division of labor as a source of economic growth, was not blind to its impact on labor’s intelligence. Both in his early Lectures and in The Wealth of Nations he laments the effect of the industrial process in robbing the working class of its “martial spirit” and of its native intellectual capacity. “The understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their employments,” he tells us, warning that a man whose work is reduced in variety to the performance of a few simple operations soon becomes “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to become.” Thus far, our experience with the industrial process suggests that Smith’s fears over the intellectual degradation of labor may have been more prescient than Marx’s expectation of a heightened class awareness.
But this in turn points to a still more difficult question. The failure of the working class to free itself from the precepts and values of bourgeois society asks us to consider whether to the spheres of circulation and production there should not be added a third: that of ideas, ideologies, consciousness—false and otherwise. Marxian analysis has always been indecisive about the degree of independence that should be accorded to this third realm, treating it on occasion as a mere superstructure erected on the “foundation” of social and economic relations, at other times, as in Marx’s historical essays, according it a much greater degree of autonomy and power. What is needed to explore this question is not only a study of the “working class mentality” that would be as acute as Braverman’s analysis of working-class occupations but a psychological study of the proletariat as the personification of mankind itself.
These remarks must indicate that Braverman’s work leaves me with some unanswered questions. In my view there is a side of human experience—the psychological and political side—from which Marxism has tended to shy away. Nonetheless, Braverman’s work penetrates deeply into life, shedding more light on the meaning of capitalism than most studies in what is called “labor economics,” not to mention the heavily italicized tracts that too often pass as Marxist analysis. This book is a masterful contribution to the literature of social reality.