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On Twenty-Five Years with Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital

Joan Greenbaum is a professor of computer information systems at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York,and visiting professor at the University of Oslo,Norway. She is the author of Windows on the Workplace (Monthly Review Press, 1995.)

I was extremely pleased to have the opportunity to read, once again, Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital and to reflect on the last twenty-five years. While the years seem to gallop now, I want to try in this brief time period to capture a few moments and reflections and share them with you.

To set the stage for this I will take you back to my graduate days when I had to write a paper for a course on Capital, at the New School, taught by Paul Sweezy. He said two things that stuck in my mind (I am sure that he said a lot of other memorable things, but reflections and memory being what they are, here is what I remember): 1)don’t read the first chapter of Capital first, as it makes no sense by itself; rather, start with the concrete data in Chapter XIV on Division of Labor and Manufacture; and 2)write a paper that connects what you have learned with some experience you have. The chapter, of course, opened my eyes to detailed division of labor which, regardless of current management claims and the so-called new market conditions, still outlines the shape of the labor process. And Sweezy’s specific advice about writing what you know led me to write about my experiences as a programmer and systems analyst in the computer field and to try to capture what I knew in the net of the theoretical framework I was learning.

Enter Harry Braverman who, unfortunately, I never met, but who influenced my first article and has deeply affected my subsequent research. From his hospital bed he wrote a commentary on the paper I had given Paul Sweezy, and from his comments I was able to see how I could further squeeze the life of my experience into a framework that could be useful for looking at the broader picture. In the tradition of letter-writing critique, which I am afraid we lose in the quicker pace of rapid finger movement in e- mailed critiques, he gave me pause to reflect on my practice and examine the details of individual labor process changes in light of larger tendencies. To be specific, my re-reading brings me back to the urgencies of the tendencies: namely, the way the labor process is shaped and remolded to extract higher levels of exploitation for greater surplus value, and the wake of alienation this process leaves behind.

Now I want to add one additional historical note and that is Braverman’s warning to himself, in the Introduction, to avoid romanticizing the past and placing the bygone days of craft work up on a pedestal. That is a message that I have had to take to heart again and again as I look at how office work has changed in my own working life. I am reminded of a message from my youngest son when he read through drafts of my book Windows on the Workplace. “Mom,” he said, “your generation spent so much time complaining about your jobs, and now you are complaining about there not being any jobs like the ones you didn’t like.”

Braverman put passion into his writing. Rather than base his arguments on romanticization of the past, he used his work experience and his extremely well-researched arguments to show that managerial strategy could be bent into many forms in order to lower the overall wage bill. Control over skill was, and remains, one of the main mechanisms management uses to decrease wages and increase control, but many readers or people offering quick commentary have gotten the specifics of so-called deskilling confused with the general tendency toward controlling the labor process. As I wrote in MR’s special commemoration issue in 1994, the skill debates in the 1980s seem to have taken researchers into the forest and mesmerized them with each individual tree offering evidence of “upskilling,” without drawing a map of the whole forest.

Here is a brief sketch of an overall map as I see it, with arrows pointing to the ways that control and coordination of labor have increasingly been imbedded into software and the infrastructure of the Internet. This is a process that happens not through some invisible technological force, but through the labor process of developing information system specifications, which reinforce capital’s need to maintain control and coordination over labor, even (and perhaps especially) when the labor process no longer takes place under one roof, but is spread out over time and space.

Braverman cites Babbage who, writing in 1832, not only outlined the concept of modern management but is also credited with developing the theory for the first “analytical engine” or computer. Babbage said:

that the master manufacturer, by dividing the work to be executed into different processes each requiring different degrees of skill or of force, can purchase exactly that precise quantity of both which is necessary for each process, whereas, if the whole process were executed by one workman, that person must possess sufficient skill to perform the most difficult, and sufficient strength to execute the most laborious, of the operations into which the art is divided. (80)

The design of information systems today is built on a base of previous divisions of labor. When Babbage, and Taylor after him, described the needs of industrial capital, they spoke of dividing “head from hands” and separating tasks so that repetition would drive up work speed and press down costs. There are three things about this that I want to stress:

1). Now those divided tasks can be reintegrated into new labor processes like that of, for example, telephone call-center operators. But those reintegrated tasks are based on a bed of clearly rationalized work processes and, as we all know from calling 800 numbers, very well-defined scripts.

2). The reintegrated tasks are recombined into a more fluid and more global division of labor that not only separates the head of, say, Wall Street from the hands of Mexico, but the words of workers in Iowa from those in India.

3). Control and coordination of redistributed and redivided labor can be connected through the infrastructure of Internet technology and the base of software which has been designed to support it.

I want to be very clear with you that I am not romanticizing my long-lost days as a programmer or fantasizing about some wizardry of technology that is, as if by capital’s unified design, able to bring about all of this. In fact, the history of information system development in the last twenty-five years has in many cases been a comedy of errors, in which technological design and management dictates have made Chaplin’s “Modern Times” seem like middle of the night reruns.

Harry Braverman was writing in the first part of the 1970s, when mainframe computers and tedious computer programming were the only technical means to integrate office labor processes. The guiding principle for developing computer system specifications at that time was that of automation, which was borrowed from factory-based systems and built on the idea that office work could be made to flow as if it were an assembly line of paper.

During the 1980s popular management literature got led down a garden path of belief in so-called “paperless offices” and computers which were tagged with the supposedly fond-sounding name “personal.” By the accounts written in management literature during this period, the effects were disastrous, and as the 1984 Office of Technology Assessment report indicated (and Fortune magazine reiterated in 1986), management again had to take a look at work organization, which had to be reconfigured before office automation could be effective.

Current information systems are designed under the rubric of “communication” rather than automation. This overall metaphor acknowledges that information doesn’t necessarily flow, but needs to be communicated from person to person and place to place. High on the list of things that get written into information systems specifications are the need for management to examine what they call work organization with a careful eye toward coordinating and controlling work processes through technical specification. Without too much translation we can hear this process when we listen to Braverman in 1974:

Machinery offers to management the opportunity to do by wholly mechanical means that which it had previously attempted to do by organizational and disciplinary means. The fact that many machines may be paced and controlled according to centralized decisions, and that these controls may thus be in the hands of management, removed from the site of production to the office—these technical possibilities are of just as great interest to management as the fact that the machine multiplies the productivity of labor. (195)

If we strip away the spin words used today like “knowledge” worker, “flexible” work, and “high tech” work, and if we insert the word “information system” for “machinery,” we are still talking about management attempts to control and coordinate labor processes.

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