Friday, February 11, 2022

Labor and Monopoly Capital, Introduction


Harry Braverman, (1998 [1974]) Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. Monthly Review Press, New York.

Summary of Introduction

Braverman’s introduction to his work sets out his reasons for writing it – on the one hand, to update Marx’s theory of the production process, and on the other, to counter the bourgeois economists and sociologists of his own day. He talks about his own background as a worker (and later as a manager), and how this gives him particular insights into the important questions of the labor process; he also asserts that he does not have a romantic vision or nostalgia for the past. Actually, he does not claim this as a basis for his own authority (though he does say something to the effect of validating others with such experience, and slagging off those who do not have such experience but approach the issue only as outsiders); instead he has an objective method based on reviewing existing sources.

Braverman provides a history of why Marx's study of the labor process has not been taken up by subsequent Marxists. First, it was brilliant and very good for its day; second, the reformist union movement moved away from critique to adaptation to capitalism; third, the Soviet revolutionaries needed to emulate capitalist science and technological change as part of taking Russia through a capitalist phase. He cites Lenin's appreciation of Taylorism. He will limit his discussion to labor under capitalism because labor in the USSR and similar “hybrid” societies is at this point [1974] still derivative, and imitative, of the capitalist system. He snipes here at the “inevitability assumption of the mainstream” (associated with Clark Kerr), that sees the current relations of capital as inevitable and eternal: this idea of eternal verities and formulae that can be simply plugged into history is a large part of what Braverman is against in his advocacy of a nuanced, historically and socially situated analysis. In relation to this he takes on technological determinism, both within the bourgeois tradition, and within Marxism, the latter being a misunderstanding of Marx’s actual nuanced view.

Returning to the idea of critique, there is a need for “independent” critique which does not simply parrot the perspective of the designers, managers, etc. This is related to the criticisms he will continue to make throughout the chapter, of mainstream sociology. In a discussion of the complex and two-way relationship between technology and social organization, the question of revolution and its effects arises: Braverman allows that the USSR can be revolutionary (or have been founded in a revolution from which it has increasingly strayed), and that, although it now is still mimicking capitalism, it could yet transform into a truly socialist or even communist society over hundreds of years. In other words, there is a likely delay: a political revolution could take some time to create technological changes – and the example here is capitalism: 

Thus if steam power "gives us" the industrial capitalist, industrial capitalism "gives us," in turn, electric power, the power of the internal combustion engine, and atomic power. (13)

Braverman will study the working class but declines to provide a working definition until the study is complete: [this is so Marxist]. He takes issue with the idea in his day of a “new working class” (educated office types etc.). He asserts that the advocates of said phenomenon have set up their definition first and are now stuck imposing it on reality, which is precisely what he will not do. He leaves aside the idea of class consciousness, as being a bit premature. Then then turns into a series of criticisms of bourgeois sociologists who have adopted terms like alienation, class consciousness, etc. but subordinated this to the survey and self-description, which he ridicules, but they claim is more “scientific” than a Marxist analysis or that adopted by C. Wright Mills in White Collar [more qualitative?]. He ends with a discussion of the contemporary concern over job satisfaction issues, which he critiques, and points out that the actual response advocated in this approach, instead of “humanizing the workplace,” is instead about cutting costs and increasing efficiency:

"We are dealing with one of the fundamentals of capitalist society, and this means that even while slight ameliorations are accepted by capitalism, the structure and mode of functioning of capitalism reproduces the present processes of labor a thousandfold more rapidly, more massively, and more widely.(26)

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