Review: Labor and Monopoly Capital. The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, by Harry Braverman

This excellent book by Harry Braverman revolves around the main thesis, that labour in the 20th century has become 'degraded'. The combined effects of mechanization, scientific management and other control techniques allowed management to wrest control from workers and enforce, under ever changing circumstances, alienating practices onto workers across all industries, including office and service jobs.

Braverman knows what he is talking about, as he began his working life as an apprentice in the coppersmith trade and remained in various industry jobs before becoming a trade unionist, journalist, an editor and publisher. While he points out that his book is not about the subjective experience of the workers, his familiarity with various working processes adds weight to the argument. Closely based on Marx, especially Kapital Vol I, Braverman explains how the degradation of labour is structural to the progres of the capitalist economy. To the principle of the division of labour is added the important Babbage principle: not only that the various working steps are split up into simple units which are then performed by workers all day long in a repetitive manner, the capitalist also expects to purchase that labour at the 'adequate' price, and adequate means the lowest possible price, of course. The Babbage principle in connection with the division of labour and mechanization started to transform the working class, pushing back skilled craftsman while increasing the numbers of the 'mass worker'.

Braverman gives ample space to the examination of 'scientific management' after Frederick Winslow Taylor. He argues that there is nothing 'scientific' about Taylorism, yet also that the fact that nobody openly speaks about scientific management anymore does not mean that it has vanished. On, the contrary, it has become so widespread that it is 'natural' to the way capitalism works. While Braverman shows in depth what this form of labour organisation imposes on workers in terms of rigidity and excessive demands on strength and physical fitness, his main point is that with the onset of scientific management a process started, whereby ever more knowledge was divested from workers and became management knowledge. Whereas a skilled craftsman possessed the complete knowledge to produce a variety of things, factory workers lost increasingly oversight over the production process. It is not only that they are dispossessed of the means of production, they also become subordinated to a system which extracts knowledge and skills that belonged to a craft and makes it part of management knowledge which uses it for planning in such a way that the result for the workers is deskilling and disempowering. Their work becomes ever more fragmented and of the worker is expected nothing much more than being a good robot. The book, however, does not stop there. Well structured and building on previous chapters, it goes on to explain how this process created a new class of planners, engineers and managers.

The novelty of this development during the past century lies not in the separate existence of hand and brain, conception and execution, but the rigor with which they are divided from one another, and then increasingly subdivided, so that conception is concentrated, insofar as possible, in ever more limited groups within management or closely associated with it. Thus, in the setting of antagonistic social relations, of alienated labour, hand and brain become not just separated, but divided and hostile, and the human unity of hand and brain turns into its opposite, something less than human.
The paper replica of production, the shadow form which corresponds to the physical, calls into existence a variety of new occupations, the hallmark of which is that they are found not in the flow of things but in the flow of paper (pp. 125-6).

Through this principle of the separation of conception from execution, workers become nothing but an 'animated tool of management' (p. 136, footnote 20, quoting Hoxie, Scientific Management and Labour pp. 131-32). The duplication of each working process with pen on paper increasingly leads to growing numbers of people who perform those tasks, so that they, following the logic of capitalist labour relations, themselves become submitted to the Taylorisation of their activity. While the real intellectual labour of thinking out new production processes is performed by a small number of high level engineers and managers, all the other tasks such as drawing, typing, filing, etc. are handed down to large numbers of people who are paid less and who themselves have only a limited overview of the process of production.

Barverman's writing achieves a fine balance between narrative parts, examples and theoretic content, yet occasionally it glows with deep sitting anger over the effects of the degradation of work. He writes:

The transformation of working humanity into a "labor force," a "factor of production", an instrument of capital, is an incessant and unending process. The condition is repugnant to the victims, whether their pay is high or low, because it violates human conditions of work; and since the workers are not destroyed as human beings but are simply utilized in inhuman ways, their critical, intelligent, conceptual faculties, now matter how deadened or diminished, always remain in some degree a threat to capital (p. 139).

Braverman's book works hard to dispell some popular myths created by sociologists of work and other commentators who claim that while technical progress destroys some jobs, it will inevitably create also new and better ones, and that technical progress inevitably leads to an upgrade of necessary skills of the work force. He shows how clerical work has initially been an occupation of the bourgeoisie and now has become 'proletarised' through the mechanisation of office work and the 'scientific' organisation of administrative work in the modern corporation. And, although the book was written at quite an early stage in the computerisation of all office work, it offers useful starting points for the application of a social critique based on labour with regard to the effects of computerisation.

The Mechanization of the Office

In the chapter Mechanization of the Office (pp. 326 - 348) Braverman accounts for a brief and concise history of the deskilling effects of computerisation, starting with pre-computer punch-card equipment such as the Hollerith machine, which for the first time enabled "reading" and "interpreting" simple data without direct human participation (p. 327). he describes the computer as "the chief, so not only, instrument of mechanization of the office". While it was first used for 'large scale routine and repetitive operations' such as payrolls, billing, inventory control, 'it was soon applied in new tasks such as for elaborate sales reports, production-cost accounting, market research information, sales commission and so forth, all the way up to general accounting' (p. 328). The effects of the computer on the workforce performing those tasks was similar to that of the assembly line on the skilled craftsman, only that it happened within a much accelerated time-frame. While initially the computer seemed to necessitate the growth of new highly skilled professions, 'along with the computer a new division of labour was introduced and the destruction of the craft greatly hastened. Each aspect of computer operations was graded to a different level of pay frozen into a hierarchy: systems manager, systems analyst, programmers, computer console operators, key punch operators, tape librerians, stock room attendants, etc.' (p. 329). Even the highest levels of the computer hierarchy were split up according to the technical division of labour and the Babbage principle. The 'systems analyst's' job was it to have a 'comprehensive view of the processing of data in the office and to work out a machine system which will satisfy the processing requirements' (pp. 329-30). What is left to do for the programmer is to 'convert this system into a set of instructions for the computer'. Yet also the 'designation of the programmer' became soon 'somewhat ambigous', because it can be applied to a high level programmer who designs the system and a coder who simply translates instructions 'mechanically into specialized terminology. In accordance with the capitalist division of labour most programmers have been reduced to this level of work.' However, 'below this level, computer work leaves the arena of specialized or skilled work' (p. 329). At the time of writing, 'the largest single occupation created by computerisation is that of key punch operator' wrote Braverman (Ibid.). Yet that logic did not change with the introduction of keyboards as data entry devices and the miniaturisation of computers. Braverman describes this logic in detail: the translation of every input into adequate code, the provision of a software that takes care of all requirements and foreseeable eventualities, the preparation of pre-assigned codes, etc. which results in a requirement for 'the preparation of data according to rigid forms' which is what most people in working life using computers are confronted with - specialised software which allows a limited set of inputs according to forms with some choice and selection functions. To operate those terminals requires low or no training at all and by using computers in this way nothing is learned about digital technologies as such. To process data in this way becomes extremely boring for the 'operators' while it gives management the advantage to have an exact measurement for the speed of work (p 334). 'As work has been simplified, routinized and measured the drive for speed has come to the fore' (p. 335). Thus, while computerisation has created a small caste of the 'high-priests' of systems analysis and programming, many skilled jobs have been reduced in the office, while the remaining jobs required lower skills and were more routinized. Soon, office managers learned to reduce the educational levels required for entry into the new professions and to formulate a clear expectation as to the chances of climbing the job ladder:

"To be honest, we don't people to take data processing jobs as stepping stones to other jobs. We want permanent employees capable of doing good work and satisfied to stay and do it. The only rapid advancedment for the bulk of non-supervisory data-processing staff is out of data-processing" (p. 338, quoting Hoos, Automation in the Office, citing American Management Association, Establishing an Integrated Data-Processing System, Special Report, Nr.11, 1956, p 113).

The computerisation of the office was a particularly hard blow for the profession of accounting, Braverman explains, and also started to threaten the lower levels of management. As processing various bits of information require this information to be available to the computer in a standardised format, 'the work of transcribing information into a form that can be used by the computer is spread throughout the office' (p. 339). 'Thus, ina variety of ways, the reduction of data to symbolic form with accurate positional attributes becomes, increasingly, the business of the office as a whole, as a measure to economize on labour costs' Braverman concludes (p. 340). Which was followed within the space of about 10 to 15 years later by shrinking the whole office into a software so that it fits inside a small standardised personal computer. This may have had some empowering side effects for small businesses and self-employed people, not to mention scam letter writers. There is also the unforeseen consequence of allowing a new strata of self-employed free lance programmers of free and open source software to come into being. The overall effects, however, have been of massive job losses, while a small number of new highly skilled jobs were created and a relatively larger number of data-processing jobs. Yet in the long run the standardisation of those processes and improvements in telecommunications allowed the outsourcing of many of those jobs to low-wage countries. Now that this process is more or less complete in the core industrial countries there is a tendency to forget the massive ruptures on the job market that the computerisation of the office caused, while the gains in 'empowerment' and new freedoms to communicate tend to be overemphasised, argues Andrew Ross (IDC listserv post, Nov 2 2009).

Labour and the Techo-scientific Revolution

The chapters on science, technology and machinery are a valuable contribution to the critique of technology as an embodiment of social relations. "The machine," Braverman writes, "the mere product of human labour and ingenuity, designed and constructed by humans and alterable at will, is viewed as an independent participant in human social arrangements. It is given life, enters into "relations" with the workers, relations fixed by its own nature, is endowed with the power to shape the life of mankind, and is sometimes even endowed with designs upon the human race" (p. 229).

Braverman points out that the "scientific revolution" - the more "systematic use of science for the more rapid transformation of labour power into capital" - began roughly at the same time as 'scientific managemen'. This period, the late 19th and early 20th century, also coincides with 'the increase of monopolistic organisation in each capitalist country', 'the rapid conclusion of the colonialization of the globe', the internationalisation of capital and the international division of labour (p. 252). These explanations resonate with Arrighi and Silver's (1999) analysis of world systems and transitions from one empire to the other, although such a macro-systemic analysis is not Braverman's main concern.

What is noteworthy for the project of 'periodisation' carried out on the pages of is that the 'more systematic use of science' from ca.1890 onwards kickstarts a trajectory which continues till today as a major engine of 'innovation'. Quoting a pamphlet of a New York Stock Exchange firm, Braverman writes that

while the steam engine was the prime mover of the Industrial Revolution, no single innovation of recent times occupies the same position. The advances made in a large number of fields "are tightly interrelated in a veritable seamless web of technological change, so as to constitute "mere branches of one master technology" based upon an "elaborate apparatus of scientific research and testing," "Science,"it concludes, "is the 'steam engine we have been seeking, and the collective science is the master technologist" (p. 167 footnote, quoting Modell, Roland and Stone, 1957, The Scientific-Industrial Revolution).

This development should be taken into account as an 'even longer cycle' superimposed on the 40 to 60 years of techno-economic paradigm change.

Braverman also shows how the combination of scientific management, the Babbage principle and mass production necessitate a growth in size of the company and ultimately lead to the American style of the modern corporation. The analysis of the relationship between the specifically American style of mass production and the rise of the megacorporation is carried further in more depth by Piore and Sabel in The Second Industrial Divide (1984), to which Labour in Monopoly Capitalism provides supporting arguments.

It is probably the greatest merit of this book that it emphatically shows that the working class is not a static thing and that the 'class composition' constantly changes.

Each advance in productivity shrinks the number of truly productive workers, enlarges the number of workers who are available to be utilized in the struggle of corporations over the distribution of the surplus, expands the use of labour in wasteful employment or no employment at all, and gives to all society the form of an inverted pyramid resting upon an ever narrower base of useful labour" (p. 207).

Braverman contests the view that the separation between clerical work and shop floor work, between "white collar" and "blue collar worker" is analytically useful. All wage workers are in an unfortunate position, even those who form a new 'middle layer' of management, administration and technical tasks. He shows that the definitions applied and the ways statistics are collected often have a strong ideological content. It is not only the case that work in manufacturing industries is in decline and that so called service industries grow, but that this process is accompanied by the inclusion of more female and migrant labour into the economy with depressing effects on the pay scale, while at the same time ideologists take care to create the image that, some service jobs at least, are 'better' than factory jobs and that they have higher demands on education. It is rarely openly admitted that capital does not prefer a higly educated workforce.

"I suggest that excessive educational and skill specification is a serious mistake and potential hazard to our economic and social system. We will hurt individuals, raise labour costs improperly, create disillusion and resentment, and destroy valid job standards by setting standards that are not truly needed for a given task. ..." (pp. 214-5, quoting James R. Bright, Automation and Skill Requirements, in: Automation and Management, Boston, 1958, p. 220)

It is only possible through arbitrary definitions and skewed statistics to speak of any 'improvements' in the quality of work in the second half of the twentieth century. Braverman emphasises that there is a gulf between the 'social forms' of labour - the value and status that is accorded to different activities - and the concrete forms of work which are often very similar or even identical, though workers are still differently classed, belonging to 'services' or 'industry'. The rise of automation and a higher 'scientific-technological' element to production and the growth of lowly paid work in the service sector are directly connected and not just coincidental. Thereby capitalism is capable, as Marx already foresaw, to create poverty in the midst of plenty, and because of that burgeoning industries in one sector at the same time contribute to the production of a surplus army of labourers and thereby to poverty on quite a grand scale. Braverman's analysis is unrelenting and grants no olive branch to what sometimes even Marxist economists call the 'Golden Age' of productivity growth from the 1940s to the early 1970s. The space given to clerical work and the service industry, - written in 1974 I would like to remind - creates some definitory problems for any clear cut separation between Fordism and Post-Fordims, as Braverman already shos a clear grasp on developments which are usually associated with a later 'regime' of capital accumulation. Last not least, the book also sheds some new light on the problematic issue of the separation between productive and unproductive labour. In this, as well as in other areas, this summary can only point at issues to be further explored.