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Colin Barker

Labour and Capital

(February 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.86 (wrongly numbered No.85), February 1976, pp.27-29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Labour and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century
Harry Braverman
Monthly Review Press, £5.30 (hardback)

This is a superb book. A paperback edition is promised. Every socialist should have a copy.

If this seems an immoderate beginning to a review, it is quite justified to me. What Harry Braverman has done, in a series of short and readable chapters, is to continue at the point where Marx left off in his analysis of the labour process in capitalist society in the first volume of Capital, and to show what has been happening to work in twentieth century capitalism. After reading the book, it seems amazing that no one had ever written it before. All manner of things that we all know, yet never recognise, suddenly emerge to the centre of attention, to the place in socialist consciousness that they ought to have had for 50 years. Braverman cuts sharply through a series of misconceptions that have become received wisdom in bourgeois thought, but which also have been uncritically accepted in the Marxist movement too.

In the space of a review, I can do no more than outline what he has to say. At the end of the first chapter of Capital Marx suggested, in a famous section entitled The Fetishism of Commodities, that economists who presented the market and its laws as ‘inevitable’ were like primitive people who first carved an idol, a Fetish from wood and then fell down and worshipped their own creation, endowing it with their own powers. In our own age, ‘technology’ has become the fetish, with similar powers over men attributed to it – when, in fact, men have created their technology and can alter it.

The massively expanded use of machines, the application of science to production, the endless rationalisation and growth of output, are matters which belong to the history of capitalism. Capitalism emerged before the systematic use of machinery and then – as it developed – seized upon and transformed the instruments of men’s material production, destroying traditional ways of working and substituting its own. As a by-product of its development, capitalism vastly expanded the collective control of men over nature, creating the material possibility of a world of abundance for all. But only as a by-product. The expansion of men’s powers under capitalism, which Marx celebrates in the first chapter of the Communist Manifesto, followed a path determined by the capitalist mode of production and its laws of motion.

The labour process under capitalism is not something ‘neutral’, but is shaped by its central’ purpose: the accumulation of capital. Capitalism may expand ‘men’s collective powers over nature’, but it does so in a totally contradictory way. Under capitalism, the working class surrenders its decision-making power over the labour process to the employers; workers’ ‘collective powers over nature’ become the capitalists’ prerogative. The capitalist’s problem is, always and everywhere, to squeeze out of the labour-power he has hired the fullest use he can, to control the ‘collective power over nature’ he has hired. In the Labour process, the capitalists’ key problem is control: the worker’s is the, progressive alienation of the labour process from his control. A large part of this book is concerned with just that issue: the development of management’s control over the labour process.

All the means by which ‘science’, and ‘rationality’ are applied to the work-processes of capitalist enterprise are means aimed at the crucial goal of capitalist production: managerial control over the work-force, in order that the rate of accumulation of surplus-value may be as high as possible.

Capitalism develops its own special kind of ‘division of labour’, that characteristic of modern production: the division of each occupation into a multitude of ‘detail labours’ under the planned control of management. Adam Smith presented pin-making as an example of this ‘division of labour’; today, perhaps the car-assembly factory is the most awe-inspiring and familiar instance. As John Ruskin said in the 19th century, under this typically capitalist ‘division of labour’ it is not merely labour that is divided, it is men. Such a division of work into ‘detail labour’ has several great advantages for capitalist management: labour-power is cheaper, management control over the labour-process is enormously enhanced while the workers’ control over the labour process is thereby reduced proportionately – for workers are more easily replaceable, like machine parts. The conceptual, planning, thinking part of work is taken away from the worker, and concentrated in management. Work is ‘de-skilled’.

The thinking of management on these matters has been given systematic expression in the area of monopoly capital in what is commonly termed ‘scientific management’. This ‘science’ is a purely capitalist ‘science’: It was born out of the needs of capital, and will be destroyed by socialist revolution. It is, as Braverman says, the science of ‘the management of the work of others under capitalist conditions’. The problem to which it seeks ‘scientific’ answers is, ‘how best can alienated labour be controlled?’ It seeks, in every sphere of production, to find methods by which the subjection of the worker to the capital he serves may be made more total; in the process, ‘scientific management’ seeks control not only of the externals of work but of the very way the worker does his or her job. Work is studied, timed, reorganised, de-skilled, for one crucial’ purpose: to reduce the employer’s reliance on his workers’ own initiative. Under ‘scientific management’, all possible elements of ‘brain work’ are removed from the operative’s sphere of competence, and transferred away into special ‘planning’ sections of the corporation. Knowledge in the production process belongs thenceforth, not to the workers, but to management. Workers become, more and more, interchangeable ‘detail labourers’, who require not an education but rather ‘training’. Ideally, in millions of jobs in modern industry, the chief thing the worker has to ‘learn’ is not this or that operation (for the ‘operation’ is so simple it can be picked up in a few moments) but rather how to perform the operation fast enough to meet management’s demands. It’s not even ‘training’ that is required, but ‘conditioning’. ‘Mental’ and ‘manual’ work are, as Marx argued, more and more separated, into different places, different sections of the labour force.

The first area in which the principles of ‘scientific management’ were applied was manufacturing industry, but once established there the ‘science’ has been applied to an even-wider range of jobs. One sector of production after another, in each of which initially the workers retain some element of ‘craft’ or ‘skill’, is invaded by the principles of ‘scientific management’. In each sector, the process is completed, as an ‘American union journal commented, ‘the worker is no longer a craftsman in any sense, but is an animated tool of the management.’

The application of modern science in a systematic way to modern production, a development again that coincides with the growth of monopoly capital in the latter decades of the 19th century, furthers the process. The application of the findings of modern chemistry, physics, electronics and the like only further the separation of the worker from the planning function in production. Workers themselves are treated more and more as machines, whose movements can be standardised and measured. (The CEGB boasts proudly of its computerised data bank of information on ‘job descriptions’, a data bank which, incidentally, helped the CEGB reduce its labour force by 20 per cent in a few years under the power industry’s ‘productivity deal’). When Marx argued in Capital that the measure of value in capitalist society was the quantity of undifferentiated abstract labour contained in a commodity, he was describing not just a theoretical notion, but the actual tendency of capitalist production. Workers are reduced, in one branch of production after another, into masses of undifferentiated, abstract labour power.

Thus, the development of machinery, characteristic of the labour process under capitalism, is in social terms a further means by which a worker is enslaved to capital. The worker, as Braverman puts it, is confined ‘within a blind round of servile duties in which the machine appears as the embodiment of science and the worker as little or nothing’. In place of the driving foreman, demanding a faster and faster pace of work, the machine itself forces a pattern and pace of activity on the worker. The more complex the machinery, the cheaper the labour-power that ‘runs’ it: in the USA, it costs 12 times as much to train a machinist using conventional methods as it does to train the operator of a numerically-controlled machine tool. Here again, the intellectual work of planning production is separated from its execution. The de-skilling process does not stop at the factory floor, either, but invades the drawing office, the laboratories, the ‘white-collar’ sectors of capitalist work too.

A great deal of nonsense has been written about the way in which the most advanced forms of capitalist technology enable the worker to ‘rediscover responsibility and skill’. In practice, the chief skill required in the most highly automated plants is the skill of staying awake till the end of the shift. Braverman suggests that in modern American manufacturing industry, only about three per cent of the labour force can be said to embody in their work the technical knowledge required for production, and even amongst these ‘technical’ personnel skill-hierarchies are well developed, detail-labour is strongly apparent. The reduction of the differentials in pay between the ‘technical’ personnel and production workers is witness to the reduction in skill requirements in their occupations too.

Characteristically, ‘automation’, ‘modernisation’, ‘rationalisation’, ‘scientific management’, and the like have the effect, above all, of displacing from one sector of production after another great masses of workers, who ‘become available’ for hire in other, more labour-intensive branches of capitalist work. Capital never stands still but invades more and more branches of human production. Whereas, at the time even that Marx wrote a century ago, many aspects of production in the advanced capitalist countries were still in the hands of families, of self-employed people and so forth, in the intervening century capital has invaded these branches of production and transformed them. In the process, it has made men and women dependent for the satisfaction of almost all their needs on the ‘services’ of capitalist production. Whether it be food preparation, or entertainment, activities that formerly stood outside the sphere of capital are now dominated by it. Even in our sexual activities we hardly manage without at least the products of the modern chemical industry ... The ‘commodity form’ has become more and more generalised. The market has become universal. Whole new ‘services’ are now provided for large urban communities, ‘services’ which suck in to employment great masses of ‘surplus labour’, both the labour ‘freed’ from manufacturing industries by machinery and labour ‘freed’ from housework. Generally, as Braverman notes, the new sectors of employment in the ‘service’ sector pay lower wages than the ‘mechanised’ sector, and absorb higher and higher proportions of the labour force.

In our epoch, women in millions have begun to contribute to the expansion of the ‘gross national product’, have become ‘productive’, in other words, have been drawn into capitalist production. Above all, women have been drawn into the most rapidly expanding branches of capitalist work, in ‘office’ and ‘service’ work. A major feature of 20th century capitalist development has been the enormous growth of so-called ‘white-collar’ jobs, in offices, shops and the like. In the process, conventional views of the relations between ‘manual’ and ‘white-collar’ jobs have become more and more out of date. As ‘white-collar’ work has expanded, it has also been transformed: where ‘clerical’ work in the period of the industrial revolution was a sign of privilege, of association with the boss, of standards of living well above those of factory workers, this is anything but true today. Pay differentials have not merely been reduced, they have in crucial respects reversed. The old association of ‘education’ with ‘white-collar’ work is for many white-collar jobs, utterly meaningless today. Office work, like factory work, has been de-skilled to a vast extent, and the office worker turned into as much of a ‘detail labourer’ as his or her counterpart in a factory. For pure tedium, there are significant numbers of office jobs beside which most factory work is positively thrilling, as the briefest acquaintance with such activities as those of a ‘filing clerk’ or a ‘key punch operator’ will rapidly demonstrate. The ‘educational requirements’ demanded by employers for such jobs are rarely necessary in any technical sense: the possession of ‘O’ levels and the like is a proof to the employer, not of a useful knowledge of English, mathematics, or a foreign language, but of ‘motivation’, ‘reliability’ and other slavish virtues. (This is by no means restricted to office work, of course: in the Fleetwood area of Lancashire, for example, extremely repetitive electronic assembly work is only ‘open to girls of smart appearance and refined manners’ – like jobs in chemists’ shops – the rough and unrefined have to take their chances with fish processing). Certainly, modern office work and similar low-paid, detail labour makes nonsense of modern sociology’s continued insistence on the distinction between ‘manual’ and ‘white-collar’ work and workers. Like work in factories, most work in offices and in the ‘service’ sector has become abstract, unskilled labour.

Marx insisted that a crucial condition for the expansion of capital was the existence of a ‘relative surplus population’, an ‘industrial reserve army’ of workers who could be shunted from one sector of capitalist production to another, into and out of employment as the needs of capital dictated. He asserted, in addition, that this ‘relative surplus population’ must rise as a proportion of the total labour force as the mass of capital expanded. These ideas of Marx have hardly been discussed in the past decades, and certainly not defended seriously. Braverman insists that Marx’s ideas are crucial to understanding the structure and development of the modern working class. Movement of labour-power between branches of modern capitalist production has become a more and more prominent characteristic, with workers being shunted in particular out of sectors of work hit by the application of ‘science and technology’ and into the expanding, labour-intensive ‘service’ sectors. The ‘floating’ part of the ‘relative surplus production’, on the move between jobs regularly, relying on unemployment pay for the intervals between work, has grown in numbers. So too has the ‘latent’ part of the reserve army of labour, in two especially important shapes: as immigrants and, particularly, as women. The labour-market has become international: all the advanced countries of western capitalism have developed, since the war, on huge imports of labour-power from peripheral countries, former colonies and the like, the entry and exit of these migrant workers being controlled by the general needs of capital for labour-power. Even more important has been the expansion of women’s employment in capitalist enterprise. Women have been drawn into employment in boom times, and expelled from it in periods of recession to a degree unmeasured by the official statistics of unemployment. In Britain, for instance, it has been estimated that there are perhaps half a million women workers who have simply ‘disappeared’ from the ‘economically active population’, or the ‘labour force’, who do not register for unemployment pay and so simply ‘disappear’. Certainly, the real level of unemployment in Britain is grossly understated by the government’s statistics. (As according to Braverman, it is in the USA). Thirdly, the ‘stagnant’ sector of the reserve army of labour has also grown: those who live in primary poverty have, despite the vast increases in total social wealth since the war, grown in numbers. This phenomenon, ‘poverty in the midst of affluence’, is not only an American one: in the 1960s it was estimated that the proportion of the British population living on or below the official poverty line has almost doubled by comparison with 1950.

Thus the working class has been more and more caught in a double bind: it has been progressively de-skilled, and forced into a more and more abject dependence on the demands of capital. This, it need hardly be said, is not a picture that finds much of a reflection in the official and conventional view of modern society. Braverman’s final chapter confronts the conventional view head-on: we are all told (and most of us have unthinkingly believed) that the average level of skill and knowledge required by modern production has risen. The application of the miracles of the, scientific-technological revolution in industry has meant, we all know, that the modern worker has to be better educated, more skilled. But is it true? Braverman’s analysis of what has been happening in capitalist work suggests the opposite. It is true that modern production requires higher and more sophisticated levels of application of scientific knowledge, but ... not from the overwhelming majority of society. The actual tendency of modern production is not to increase the average worker’s level of skill or competence, but rather it is to polarise the population into a tiny minority that monopolises science and knowledge and a growing majority that is excluded from them. This reality is obscured by such apparently ‘objective’measures of the population as are provided by official censures, which purport to show that the population of ‘unskilled’ workers is falling while the proportion of ‘semi-skilled’ is rising. The census also shows that ‘white-collar’ work is absorbing more workers, while ‘manual’ work is stagnant or declining. But neither of these indices actually demonstrates an increase in the general ‘skill level’ of the working class: a gardener is ‘unskilled’, while a car-assembly worker is ‘semi-skilled’ – yet gardening actually requires more ‘skill’ and ‘knowledge’ than car-assembly work. ‘White-collar’ work is supposed to require a higher standard of education than ‘manual’ work, yet that assumption too is more than dubious. In reality, the census data – on whose foundation whole mystifying structures of ideas have been erected – systematically conceal the extent to which, the development of capitalist production has robbed the working class of its control over the very processes of work. If Braverman is right – and he surely is – then much of what socialists have taken for granted about, for instance, the expansion of ‘education’ under capitalism begins to look very suspect. Capitalism’s reasons for keeping children and young people in schools and colleges for longer and longer periods of their lives, has not to be much to do with the technical requirements of modern production. This is not the place to develop this question, but it does incidentally throw a good deal of light on the recent raising of the British school leaving age. Why was the school leaving age raised? In order to teach school pupils a variety of matters that the existing ten-year syllabus could not include? Hardly: the decision to keep pupils at school till the age of 16 was taken before much thought was devoted to what to do with them in school! On the other hand, the removal of all those 15-year olds from the labour market must have helped keep down the official level of unemployment ...

The implications of Harry Braverman’s book are considerable. Above all, it should remind us forcibly that no socialist movement whose aims do not include, centrally, the reorganisation of production, the progressive abolition of the distinction between ‘mental’ and ‘manual’ labour, can call itself Marxist or revolutionary. The very demand for ‘workers’ control’, if it goes no further than seeking to change the form of government of the modern enterprise, is profoundly conservative. Workers’ control of production can only be a preliminary, though necessary, means to the socialist goal, which is the humanisation of work, the reintegration of the working class and its work. These are matters of which the revolutionary socialist movement has hardly spoken for a century: Harry Braverman’s fine book should remind us of their central importance.

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Last updated: 28.12.2007