What has come to be known over the last ten years or so as ‘the labour process debate’ has been, literally, very much an academic exercise. And now its academic participants are pronouncing its end: ‘It is not perhaps an exaggeration to claim that the labour process bandwagon has run into the sand. Indeed, the catalogue of amendments and criticisms attaching to labour process theory has led a number of critics to call for little less than the abandonment of “labour process theory”footnote1.’ Should the Left care? Many of the arguments put forward in the post-Braverman labour process debate have had the effect of displacing the production process from the centre of Marxist analysis. In that sense, they carry political implications which dovetail only too neatly into some major diversionary strategies prevalent on the left today. Such strategies, which appear to provide a left-wing parallel to the political and industrial processes of deconstruction under Thatcherism, reflect an increasingly market-oriented approach to the issues of capitalist accumulation and crisis. These approaches are both pessimistic and optimistic in their
It will be argued here that the issue of the labour process has not become irrelevant to modern-day capitalism, but that post-Braverman conceptualizations of the labour process have consistently misunderstood, ignored, or misrepresented its true relevance. In place of the prevailing view, with its vaguely ‘radical’ overtones, which situates something called ‘control’ at the centre of the labour process, there will be an attempt to restore a Marxist understanding of valorization and exploitation as central to the operation of the capitalist labour process and to the politics of workers’ resistance.
Paul Thompson, in a recent paper which attempts to counter current prognostications of ‘crisis’ within the labour process debate, defines the ‘core theory’ within that debate as having ‘always been associated with the issues of deskilling and managerial control’.footnote3 Certainly, in the voluminous body of work produced since 1974 in response to Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital, one major theme has emerged and remained supreme, the issue of ‘control’, from the perspective of both management and workers. It has by no means been clear exactly what, either theoretically or empirically, ‘control’ is actually about. Nevertheless it has remained the pivot around which both criticism of Braverman—for after initial enthusiasm the commentary on Braverman has been almost universally hostile—and response to these criticisms have revolved.
Put simply, the central criticism of Braverman’s analysis has been that his (alleged) portrayal of ‘a single, overall trend—an imperative of control of the labour process’ ignores the reality and complexity of worker resistance.footnote4 Classical theorists of the labour process, such as Braverman and by implication Marx, are criticized for a representation of capitalist ‘control’ as one-dimensional and overwhelming, untrammelled by worker resistance. Early proponents of this view, such as Andrew Friedman and Richard Edwards,footnote5 have in their turn been criticized for depicting ‘control’ too simplistically. All these arguments have in common the assumption that ‘control’ constitutes the principal dynamic at work in the capitalist labour process.
The preoccupation with ‘control’ has been so tenacious that even when, as in the work of John Roemer, the object is specifically to understand exploitation, the labour process makes a (tangential) appearance in the form—and only in the form—of a coercive power struggle: ‘Although coercion in the workplace exists also in capitalism, such coercion is of secondary importance in understanding exploitation and class. It is a mistake to elevate the struggle between worker and capitalist in the process of production to a more privileged position in the theory than the differential ownership of productive assets. These results thus force a re-evaluation of the classical belief that the labour process is at the centre of the Marxian analysis of exploitation and class, a belief that has become even more prominent since the pioneering work of Braverman.’footnote6 Roemer, having (correctly) observed that ‘extra-economic’ coercion is not essential to capitalist exploitation in the sense that it is to, say, feudalism, evidently sees nothing of importance in the labour process apart from this (inessential) coercive ‘struggle between worker and capitalist’.
All these arguments proceed from a premise which is highly questionable to begin with, that ‘control’ and the coercive struggles which surround it are the crucial issue in the capitalist labour process; and while the terms of the debate are acknowledged as set by Braverman, its participants have consistently missed the point of his own central argument, which characterizes the principal issues in very different terms. Braverman’s analysis, which seeks specifically to portray ‘the development of the capitalist mode of production during the last hundred years’,footnote7 takes place in a theoretical context in which ‘control’ is a secondary issue, appearing at best as a sentimental testament to Braverman’s past as a craft worker. The theoretical context of Labor and Monopoly Capital is a classical Marxist analysis of the specifically capitalist labour process. Marx himself defines ‘labour’ as ‘a process between man and nature, a process by which man . . . mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature’,footnote8 thus pinpointing the qualitative and use-value aspects of the labour process which have been at the core of the analysis of most post-Braverman commentators. Yet he immediately precedes this definition by making it clear that it refers simply to ‘the labour process independently of any specific social formation’. In contrast, the specifically capitalist labour process, to which Marx devotes most of the rest of Chapter 7 as well as large sections of the Resultate, footnote9 is clearly defined as a unity of the process of production and the process of valorization. The objective of valorization, according to Marx, is what fundamentally structures the whole nature and organization of the capitalist labour process. This view equally dominates Braverman’s approach. In fact, Braverman’s primary concern is not with ‘control’ or even deskilling per se, but with the specifically capitalist logic which constructs these tendencies.
The failure of labour process writers to acknowledge this is illustrated in a comment by Rod Coombs in which, noting Braverman’s statement that ‘Taylorism . . . is nothing less than the explicit verbalization of the capitalist mode of production’, he writes that Braverman is presumably using the term “mode of production” to refer to the technique of production rather than to capitalism itself.’footnote10 Coombs’s reading of this point is representative of many writers on the labour process in failing to appreciate that, in Braverman’s analysis, scientific management is not simply a strategy of ‘control’ or ‘deskilling’ for its own sake but is inextricably bound up with the very logic of profitability inherent in capitalism itself.