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Braverman and the Class Struggle

Michael Yates is a labor educator and professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is the author of Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs and Why Unions Matter (both published by Monthly Review Press).


Since Paul Sweezy gently rejected my first submission to Monthly Review in 1972, he and Harry Magdoff and all of the MR writers and staffpersons, living and deceased, have been my mentors, helping me to see things more clearly and to act more effectively. And Harry Braverman’s book ranks near the top of MR’s books which have deeply influenced my thinking. I remember mentioning it in my PhD defense in 1976. I told the committee that one of the weaknesses of my thesis, which was about public school teachers’ unions, was that it had not incorporated the pioneering work of Harry Braverman in Labor and Monopoly Capital. I had a suspicion that the work of teachers was not immune to the forces described so well by Braverman: detailed division of labor, mechanization, Taylorization. Today, as the fine scholar David Noble will tell us, these forces are bearing down upon the professoriate, with potentially devastating results.

Not long after I read the book, I reorganized a course I had begun to teach, with the title “Labor Union Theory.” I reconceptualized the course as a study of the capital-labor relationship. I begin it with an analysis of capital accumulation, using Marx’s famous letter scheme, M-C-C’-M. Then I argue that profits derive from what happens inside the workplace, from the power of the employer to extract surplus value from the labor of the workers. The trouble is that there is inherent in this a “labor problem,” that is, surplus value must be extracted from what Braverman calls “an unwilling working population.” This forces employers to continuously devise “managerial control mechanisms,” and it is the study of these and the responses of workers to them which are the subject matter of the course. Beginning, as Braverman does, with pre-capitalist production, we move from the outworking system, to the factory, to the detailed division of labor, to mechanization, to Taylorization, to personnel management, to lean production. These workplace control mechanisms are always situated in a context of class struggle, which includes not just struggle at work but in the larger society and culture. While I have added materials (on lean production, for example), Braverman remains the heart of the course, and nothing that has transpired since the book’s publication has rendered it in any way obsolete. In fact, as I shall argue, it is more relevant today than ever.


Let me preface my main remarks with a quote from Paul Sweezy’s “Foreword” to Labor and Monopoly Capital:

I must conclude these remarks with a confession: for me reading this book has been an emotional experience, somewhat similar, I suppose, to that which millions of readers of Volume I of Capital have been through. The sad, horrible, heartbreaking way the vast majority of my fellow countrymen and women, as well as their counterparts in most of the rest of the world, are obliged to spend their working lives is seared into my consciousness in an excruciating and unforgettable way. And when I think of the talent and energy which daily go into devising ways and means of making their torment worse, all in the name of efficiency and productivity but really for the greater glory of the great god Capital, my wonder at humanity’s ability to create such a monstrous system is surpassed only by amazement at its willingness to tolerate the continuance of an arrangement so obviously destructive of the well-being and happiness of human beings. If the same effort, or only half of it, were devoted to making work the joyous and creative activity it can be, what a wonderful world this could be.

It is, of course, our duty as radicals to energetically debate and criticize Braverman’s work, but as we do so, let us also remember that little has really changed since 1974. Whether we speak of the labor of the nation’s millions of secretaries and clerical workers, doing tedious work in front of computer terminals, which gives them permanent muscle pains and chronic headaches, or the tens of thousands of restaurant and garment workers in our large cities, some laboring for 100 hours per week for $2.00 per hour, or the child care workers, earning just above the minimum wage to take care of other people’s children, or the 200 million child laborers worldwide, slaving away in rug-making, farm labor, and prostitution, or the hundreds of millions of unemployed, or even the army of part-time faculty members, the way in which most people spend their working lives is still “sad, horrible, heartbreaking.” And let us remember that it is the great god, Capital, which is the cause of their torment and understand that it is this god’s altar which must be demolished, from top to bottom, if we are ever to have a decent world.


Having said this, it must be asked: how might this demolition be accomplished? Well, Marxists would answer that Capital can be overthrown through the class struggle, through the conscious acts of the working class. As we have just heard, Harry Braverman has been criticized for ignoring the class struggle, for considering workers as a class in themselves but not for themselves. I want to address this shortly, but before I do, let us ask another question: upon what sort of analytical foundation should the class struggle be waged?

Since at least the end of the Second World War, the conflict between employers and workers in the United States has been fought on the terrain of the labor market. The ideology which has motivated this struggle has been a sort of “populism,” which, while criticizing capitalist excesses and extolling the virtues of the working population, shies away from a direct attack upon capital. For example, in AFL-CIO president John Sweeney’s widely-publicized pamphlet and book America Needs a Raise, much is made of the long-term decline in real wages and the growing inequality in income and wealth. Similarly, the destruction of our social safety net and exorbitant CEO pay are decried. This is all well and good, but it is woefully inadequate as a basis for waging the class struggle. Its focus is upon the distribution of income rather than the production of that income, and it makes its argument in terms of fairness rather than right.

Let me briefly review some of the historical background for Sweeney’s arguments. After World War Two, the left-wing unions were purged from the CIO and along with them any attempt by the labor movement to analyze capitalism critically. Organization of workers into unions on a mass scale stopped, and unions overwhelmingly became organizations aimed at servicing their members and keeping highly paid incumbents in office. Long-term collective bargaining agreements, nearly all with no-strike clauses, won higher wages for members, but conceded to employers control over the organization of work. Workers could file grievances over working conditions (often narrowly defined and constrained by “management rights” clauses), but these grievances were usually in the hands of union bureaucrats who often failed to pursue them aggressively or organize direct struggles in the workplaces to win them. (There were, naturally, some exceptions, notably unions which still had a strong left-wing presence, like the United Packinghouse Workers. It is interesting to note, in this regard, recent work by Maurice Zeitlin and Judith Stepan-Norris which shows that the left-wing unions typically won the best collective bargaining agreements: those with the shortest duration, the fewest steps in the grievance procedure, the weakest or no management rights clauses, and the least likelihood of no-strike agreements—in other words, those which challenged managerial control).

The fight, then, was to win higher wages and benefits, while yielding to employers the absolute right to manage the workplace. As you know, this has been labeled the “accord” between labor and capital. Unfortunately the “accord” was an insufficient basis for fighting the class struggle for at least three reasons. First, capitalist accumulation places definite limits on wage increases, even in periods of rapid capital accumulation. As wages rise, they help to accelerate the development of forces which create a relative surplus population or reserve army of labor. (By the way, Braverman’s discussion of the Reserve Army of Labor in Chapter 17 is worth a careful reading, especially today, with the official unemployment rate in the United States so low.) These forces are precisely those examined by Harry Braverman, namely the detailed division of labor and mechanization. Thus we have seen a striking decline in the share of the labor force made up of workers who produce goods—not coincidentally those workers whose wages and rates of unionization have been the highest. Rapid technological innovation has allowed a vast increase in productivity in the goods-producing sector, which, in turn, has allowed fewer workers to produce vastly more output. The workers sloughed off by this process, as well as large numbers of women workers, find employment in the labor-intensive and low-wage service-producing sector of the economy and serve as possible strikebreakers in both goods- and services-producing sectors. The point is that long before rising wages can really threaten capital, capital accumulation itself places limits on further wage increases.

Second, as the historical record clearly indicates, rapid capital accumulation cannot continue indefinitely; periods of crisis always intervene. Labor and Monopoly Capital was published right at the end of the long postwar boom. Throughout this boom, capitalists were busy with the further alienation of their workforces, dividing up the labor and mechanizing; in other words, they were increasing their control of the labor process, and not meeting much resistance even in organized workplaces. When the long period of stagnation commenced, capital went on the offensive to restore its profit rates, enforcing the program now known as neoliberalism. In the face of this corporate onslaught, strengthened by capital’s now increased control of the labor process, organized labor soon discovered that it could not make wages rise anymore, and bereft of any kind of anti-capitalist ideology based upon an analysis of how capitalism really worked, it capitulated into an abyss of wage concessions and acquiescence to the labor-management cooperation schemes being promoted by employers as window dressing for the nakedness of their anti-labor attack.

So bad had the situation become by the end of the 1980s, and so disillusioned the rank and file, that a revolt within the AFL-CIO’s leadership occurred, resulting in the ascendance of the “New Voice” leaders to power. These new officers are doing many good things, as I am sure most of us here are aware. Yet the terrain of the class struggle, as conceived by “New Voice,” is still that of the labor market and distribution. Our capitalists are especially greedy and our workers deserve more. As if the lower salaries of Japanese CEOs have anything to do with the accumulation of capital and its effects upon working people in Japan. Workers deserve a bigger share of the pie. As if workers did not produce the entire pie to begin with. As if capitalists are not, all of them, absolutely unnecessary for the existence of a human-centered system of production. And there is still a lot of deference paid to the idea that it is desirable for labor and capital to cooperate, mainly to insure that the United States can continue to gobble up the lion’s share of the world’s output. As if employers care at all who consumes their goods or who produces them and would not, at the first chance, move their facilities to the ends of the earth in search of more profit. As if workers in the rest of the world do not deserve the fruits of their own labors.

A third reason for the inadequacy of the labor market as the domain of the class struggle is stated clearly by Braverman himself. He says, “In this move [Henry Ford’s payment of a $5.00 daily wage] can be seen a second element in the adjustment of workers to increasingly unpopular jobs. Conceding higher relative wages for a shrinking proportion of workers in order to guarantee uninterrupted production was to become, after the Second World War, a widespread feature of corporate labor policy, especially after it was adopted by union leaderships.” That is, higher wages help to habituate workers to a system which denies them any control over their labor power. Implicit in this is the acceptance of the ability to buy things as the mark of human liberation. Naturally, I am not suggesting that workers did not want and deserve higher wages and benefits. But the struggle for these was not put into any sort of critical context, such that the fight for more money was not an end in itself but part of a larger battle for control of the labor process. Thus workers do come to see money and the attendant consumption as the end, and we devolve into a situation in which researchers find that steelworkers would rather continue to work long hours of overtime now, to buy things now, knowing that this will kill them before they can enjoy their retirements. [I might mention in passing that one weakness in Braverman’s analysis might be his underestimation of the “petty manipulations of personnel departments…in the habituation of workers to work.” The system of lean production pioneered by Japanese capitalists uses very sophisticated techniques of hiring and brainwashing to get workers to identify with their employers, even, for example, convincing them that they are associates and not workers and getting them to time study themselves. Of course, that such tactics can succeed is proof of the absence of effective class struggle, of the failure of the labor movement to understand the nature of capitalism.]


The labor market and all markets veil the true nature of the capitalist mode of production, as Marx and Braverman make abundantly clear. Therefore, it is bound to be insufficient to wage the class struggle as a market struggle. Instead we must look beneath the veil, at the relations of production, which show themselves inside of the workplace. And this, of course, is where Braverman comes in. First, he shows us that, “…work as purposive action, guided by the intelligence, is the special product of humankind.” And further that, “Labor that transcends mere instinctual activity is thus the force which created humankind and the force by which humankind created the world as we know it.” Through our labor we create the world and we create ourselves. To labor in this way, consciously and purposively, is to be human.

Now, the whole thrust of capitalism is to alienate us from our humanity, to deny to us that which makes us human. We enter the workplace, having sold our labor power, our ability to create, to the capitalist, who considers it to be property, on a par with the other means of production. To the capitalist we are costs of production, costs to be minimized whatever the human cost, which does not enter into the capitalist’s calculations at all. However, we are not happy to have sold our humanity, so we have to be forced to do the capitalist’s bidding. While this force is often enough effectuated violently, the true and perverted genius of capital is to accomplish it indirectly by reorganizing the labor process so that it is extraordinarily difficult for the workers to control it. Braverman shows us with wonderful clarity that the essence of capitalist management is control: control over the labor process and therefore control over the worker. First, the workers are herded into factories, then they are watched and the divisions that they make in their own labors are turned against them through the detailed division of labor. Machines threaten them with redundance and further de-skill their work. All of the piecemeal efforts at control are systematized by Taylor, who makes the separation of conception and execution the sine qua non of capitalist production. Both Taylorism and personnel management are reconceptualized again with lean production and its super-systematic hiring, just-in-time inventories, design for manufacture, team production, subcontracting, andon boards, and constant kaizening of the work. So careful have the capitalist’s calculations become that workers in modern automobile factories (places which autoworker Ben Hamper, in his book Rivethead, calls gulags) work as much as 57 seconds of every minute, often for ten to twelve hours per day. The constant pressure to produce in circumstances in which the worker can exert virtually no control over the work, is what Braverman aptly describes as “a generalized social insanity.”

It is in the workplace that capitalism shows its nature and not in the labor market, and this is what Braverman brilliantly and conclusively shows us, and what researchers such as Harley Shaiken, Mike Parker, and Jane Slaughter confirm. So if we want to wage war against this system, it is in the workplace that we must begin. It is control that matters, and it is control that we must try to win back. In other words, capitalism shatters human beings, and the task is, through revolutionary struggle, to put us back together again. Marx puts this with his characteristic wit in Capital:

On leaving this simple sphere of circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the ‘Free-trade Vulgaris’ with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labor-power follows as his laborer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back; like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but–a hiding.

Braverman, following Marx, teaches us that it is the hiding which is the issue. Just as a woman beaten by her husband cannot be healed by virtue of the gifts her husband gives her, nor by the fact that he switches from striking her with his fists to an open hand, so too the worker cannot be freed by higher wages or slightly better working conditions. Both the woman and the workers must defeat the power of their oppressors, escape their clutches and build new lives. By clearly analyzing the capitalist mode of production, Braverman has given us a means whereby we can understand this. Our understanding can then guide us to the appropriate actions and help us to conceptualize the contours of a new mode of production, one which allows us full and free rein of our human powers. Far from ignoring the class struggle, Harry Braverman in Labor and Monopoly Capital has provided us with an invaluable weapon in that struggle; for how can we struggle effectively unless we know exactly what it is we are struggling against?

Let me end this talk with a brief elaboration of the kinds of struggles which might derive from Braverman’s analysis, a matter of some importance today, when, after a long period of relative quiet, the workers of the world are awakening and recommencing the class struggle. These are in no particular order and are not meant to be exhaustive. First, I hope that the labor movement will once again take up the fight for a shorter working day. So many people are laboring unconscionably long hours that they have little time to take care of their personal needs much less fight their employers or educate themselves. The less time we are under capital’s direct control the better. And here I do not mean just shortening the daily hours of labor, but increasing free time during the workday, longer vacations, earlier retirement ages, etc.

Second, I hope that the labor movement will begin to reexamine the “no-strike” and “management rights” clauses in their agreements. These give significant control to employers even in the context of a union, whose purpose ought to be to limit this control as much as possible. Here the fight for union democracy, something which we should all aggressively support, will be critical. If working people are to take control of their lives, they must govern their own organizations. Even now, unions are the only institution in our society in which individuals can live democracy, not just learn the theory of democracy. Only by having this empowering experience and by having a living example can workers have the confidence and blueprint for transforming the world. If unions are structured as top-down bureaucracies, they just recreate in the workers’ own associations and in the workers’ consciousness the features of the work world which engender alienation. True democracy fosters the egalitarian spirit which must be central to any labor movement if it hopes to unite the working class, given all of the diversity within it. Democracy is a radical concept, which is why it is so seldom practiced. Therefore, the fight for union democracy is a precondition for any efforts to democratize the workplace.

Third, Braverman’s magnum opus provides a firm foundation for workers’ education, one which should be used not only by labor educators outside of the unions but by those inside of them as well. The AFL-CIO has produced an economics education package for workers titled “Common Sense Economics” under the able direction of AFL-CIO Education Director Bill Fletcher. By AFL-CIO standards, the package is quite radical, and of great use to labor educators—especially its plan to have workers educate themselves and teach each other. Yet it does not focus enough attention on the issue of control and what the employers’ control of the labor process means to workers. Hopefully the package will continuously be expanded or at least used as a springboard for studying employer control, what it is and how best to combat it.

Fourth, Braverman’s book more or less demands a complete reorientation of labor politics. As capital increasingly uses the state to enhance its control over every aspect of our lives, it is necessary that workers begin to see the state as a terrain of class struggle. As Ellen Meiksins Wood puts it, “In the short run, this means that political action cannot just be directed at offering capital incentives to do socially productive things, or at compensating for the ravages of capital by means of ‘safety nets.’ Politics must be increasingly about using state power to control the movements of capital and to bring the allocation of capital and the disposition of economic surpluses increasingly within the reach of democratic accountability, in accordance with a social logic different from the logic of capitalist competition and profitability.”

Finally, the struggle against capitalist control must be waged on every imaginable front. As Braverman makes clear, especially in his fine chapter “The Universal Market,” capitalists try to deepen their control of the labor process by extending their control to the whole of society, from the schools to information flows, to culture, to leisure activities, to family life itself. As they do this, they deform and dehumanize the whole of life and necessitate the formation of the broadest possible movement to contain and defeat them.

1999, Volume 50, Issue 08 (January)
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