Summary of Chapter 9: Machinery
In this lengthy chapter Braverman makes several key but simply points about the development of machinery under capitalism: namely that it is shaped by the social relations of the capitalist system, and thus fails to actually achieve its potential, because technological is developed first and foremost to cut costs of production, and to take more and more control of the process of production away from workers.
Braverman asserts that machines can be studied according to numerous criteria, but these will fall into “two essentially different modes of thought”:
The first is the engineering approach, which views technology primarily in its internal connections and tends to define the machine in relation to itself, as a technical fact. The other is the social approach, which views technology in its connections with humanity and defines the machine in relation to human labor, and as a social artifact. (127)
Braverman discusses two examples of the first approach, Usher and Reuleaux, who define machines as connected bodies with constraint of motion; the more perfect machines are those which are not as loose but better control the motion of their parts; [Reuleaux’s 19th Century “history” of machine development sounds perfectly appropriate to the development of taximeters, etc. in the 19th century, during which a major part of the struggle was to get them to not fall apart due to the motion of the vehicle.]
Braverman notes of Usher/Reuleaux’s definition that “From a technical standpoint, the value of such a definition is apparent” and immediately begins poaching at it for ignoring the labor process, not to mention that it is the control of workers’ movements which is also at stake. As a contrast, Braverman cites Marx’s definition, that “The machine proper is therefore a mechanism that, after being set in motion, performs with its tools the same operations that were formerly done by the workman with similar tools.” The issue thus becomes automation, or the substitution of human labor or skill by a machine. From the Marxist perspective, “The technical is never considered purely in its internal relations, but in relation to the worker.” A related point is that
the key element in the evolution of machinery is not its size, complexity, or speed of operation, but the manner in which its operations are controlled. (129)
He gives the example of a typewriter, which remains essentially the same for the user, even as it has progressed mechanically:
Between the first typewriter and the electrically driven ball-type machine of the present there lies a whole epoch of mechanical development, but nothing that has been changed affects the manner in which the typewriter is guided through its activities and hence there is little essential difference in the relation between typist and machine. The labor process remains more or less as it was, despite all refinements.
[An interesting observation, because wouldn’t it make even the computer keyboard essentially a continuation of the typewriter? It gets better, easier to use, etc., but I still use it in pretty much the same way, at least so far as typing is concerned. Part of Braverman’s point is that the increased ease of use, or effectiveness of the tool, is only an incremental change: what is key is the change in the relationship between the user and the tool. The computer is of course also different because it is a multi-purpose device; but its most important difference, from Braverman’s criterion, would be that, unlike a typewriter, it is exposed (and exposes the human user) to the possibility of remote control/influence through the internet connection.]
Braverman outlines his own scheme of three successive stages of machinery, which seem to be: 1) fixed motion path control (such as a paper cutter, stapler,etc.; 2) motion by gears, cams, that allows for a sequence of movements or actions, not just one repeated (such as a washing machine) 3) those that interact with information “from outside” (as in a remote controller, or programming), or in the sense of a feedback mechanism. [It is interesting that a washing machine is stage 2, while a thermostat would be stage 3, but a washing machine contains a thermostat. This does not make a washing machine stage 3 though, because the thermostat is incidental -- it keeps the washing machine functioning correctly, but does not change the end product, which is what determines the relationship of the machine to the user. [though this is also a bit confusing; Braverman has just said that a second stage machine on a timer or automatic cycle makes no difference, and yet that does change the labor input of the user; nevertheless the user still controls the machine, as opposed to it being controlled by someone else]. In contrast, a rice cooker is stage 3 because sensing the temperature is essential (not incidental) to its product, and tells it when to turn off]. The development of stage 3 is essential:
This capacity to draw upon information from external sources, or from the progress of its own operation, brings about a certain reversal in the trend of machine development. Prior to this, the evolution of machinery had been from the universal to the special purpose machine.
Braverman details how the development of stage 2 leads to specialized machines, e.g. in assembly lines, which useless outside of that context, and only worth the expense if operated continuously.
But the ability to guide the machine from an external source of control in many cases restores the universality of the machine. It can now regain its adaptability to many purposes without loss of control, since that control is no longer dependent upon its specialized internal construction. A lathe can be controlled even more efficiently by a punched-paper or magnetic tape, and be immediately adaptable to work of every kind suitable to its size and power.
[Two observations: 1) Programming (or “taping”) is seen by Braverman as a kind of “external control” or outside information, similar to feedback. 2) The entire discussion is very reminiscent of Bookchin's, as if Bookchin had been reading Braverman, but Braverman is writing this almost a decade later. I presume Bookchin would have read Braverman, but I don’t see any reference in Braverman to Bookchin, and perhaps the squabbles of the Left at that time would have made them fail to recognize their similarity. There is a key difference which will come up at the end of the chapter.]
Part of his point has to do with how this external control of stage 3 is used to link machines together, so an entire production line becomes automated. He spells out the legitimating ideology: tools are seen as “extensions” of human work, and greater control is achieved by increased “scientific command of physical principles” (133). This is portrayed as leading to the growth of civilization, the betterment of humanity, etc., which are all abstractions. The reality is that the abstract potential of technological development is concretized in the capitalist production process, within, and reproducing, capitalist social relations.
The mass of humanity is subjected to the labor process for the purposes of those who control it rather than for any general purposes of “humanity” as such. In thus acquiring concrete form, the control of humans over the labor process turns into its opposite and becomes the control of the labor process over the mass of humans.
The capacity of humans to control the labor process through machinery is seized upon by management from the beginning of capitalism as the prime means whereby production may be controlled not by the direct producer but by the owners and representatives of capital. Thus, in addition to its technical function of increasing the productivity of labor – which would be a mark of machinery under any social system – machinery also has in the capitalist system the function of divesting the mass of workers of their control over their own labor.
As he often does, Braverman then restates his point again, again eloquently (and so I am moved to again copy it):
The evolution of machinery represents an expansion of human capacities, an increase of human control over environment through the ability to elicit from instruments of production an increasing range and exactitude of response. But it is in the nature of machinery, and a corollary of technical development, that the control over the machine need no longer be vested in its immediate operator. This possibility is seized upon by the capitalist mode of production and utilized to the fullest extent. What was mere technical possibility has become, since the Industrial Revolution, an inevitability that devastates with the force of a natural calamity, although there is nothing more “natural” about it than any other form of the organization of labor.
[This is again the same point made by Bookchin, that the human control of machinery is transformed into “its opposite,” the control of humans by machinery.]
Braverman states that this is made possible by “a series of special conditions” which “have nothing to do with the physical character of the machine” (133-4):
1. “The machine must be the property not of the producer, nor of the associated producers, but of an alien power.” (134)
2. “The interests of the two must be antagonistic.”
3. “The manner in which labor is deployed around the machinery – from the labor required to design, build, repair, and control it to the labor required to feed and operate it – must be dictated not by the human needs of the producers but by the special needs of those who own both the machine and the labor power, and whose interest it is to bring these two together in a special way”
4. “Along with these conditions, a social evolution must take place which parallels the physical evolution of machinery: a step-by-step creation of a ‘labor force’ in place of self-directed human labor; that is to say, a working population conforming to the needs of this social organization of labor, in which knowledge of the machine becomes a specialized and segregated trait, while among the mass of the working population there grows only ignorance, incapacity, and thus a fitness for machine servitude.” [this separation of the workers from full understanding of the production process turns out to be key, and a reason for Braverman’s more pessimistic view in contrast to Bookchin].
In this way the remarkable development of machinery becomes, for most of the working population, the source not of freedom but of enslavement, not of mastery but of helplessness, and not of the broadening ofthe horizon of labor but of the confinement of the worker within a blind round of servile duties in which the machine appears as the embodiment of science and the worker as little or nothing.
[a touch of hauntology or fetishism of knowledge/science there, which he will return to]
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. (134)
[“Wholly” is a bit overstated; “organizational and disciplinary means” are still required to achieve this, to govern the use of the machinery by workers. So it is really a shift in delegation within an assemblage – in Foucauldian terms, a shift of emphasis from discipline to control, though the former does not disappear (as is sometimes misunderstood).]
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.
Braverman notes this may be more important in a given instance than the actual good design or efficiency of the machine. He turns to a discussion of “numerical control” (135); this apparently refers primarily to taped or programmed machinery, controlled by a computer, telling the programmable machine where to move, what to do in what sequence, etc.
With numerical control, the machine process is subjected to the control of a separate unit, which receives instructions from two sources: in numerical form from an external source, and in the form of signals from monitoring devices which check the ongoing process at the point of contact between tool and work. Using this information, the control unit originates signals which activate power drives controlling the work, tool, coolant, etc. (136)
The coding of any job is quickly completed when separated from machine execution, and once coded a job need never be analyzed again: the tape may be kept on file and used whenever a remake is called for. The processes of metal cutting are virtually automatic, relieving the worker of the need for close control of the machine while cutting is in progress. The separation of conceptualization and calculation from the machine means that the tool itself is in more constant use for metal cutting; at the same time, it goes through its continuous cutting path without interruption, which also makes for more efficient use of these expensive pieces of equipment. (137)
Thus the key points are externalized control (most notably in the form of a program which can be designed and modified by someone who is not the worker); the ensuing separation of knowledge from labor that this facilitates; and the modular replacement which allows the machine to be kept working continually. Much of this is quite similar to the technological aspects of automation which Bookchin had been crowing about as creating the potential for a post-scarcity society; Braverman himself notes that nothing inherently is bad about this technology, and a skilled machinist could easily use such devices to extend or magnify their own labor, thus keeping the production process in the hands of the worker.
That this almost never happens is due, of course, to the opportunities the process offers for the destruction of craft and the cheapening of the resulting pieces of labor into which it is broken [as detailed in earlier chapters]. Thus, as the process takes shape in the minds of engineers, the labor configuration to operate it takes shape simultaneously in the minds of its designers, and in part shapes the design itself. The equipment is made to be operated; operating costs involve, apart from the cost of the machine itself, the hourly cost of labor, and this is part of the calculation involved in machine design. (137)
In a footnote:
That engineers think: in this fashion, or are guided in this direction by all the circumstances of their work, will not appear strange to anyone with the slightest familiarity with engineering as it has developed from its nineteenth-century beginnings.
He quotes a chemist, “I’m no longer really interested in problems that don't involve economic considerations. I’ve come to see economics as another variable to be dealt with in studying a reaction – there's pressure, there's temperature, and there's the dollar...”
The process has become more complex, but this is lost to the workers, who do not rise with the process but sink beneath it. Each of these workers is required to know and understand not more than did the single worker of before, but much less. (138)
Braverman lists the new, less-skilled and lower-paid jobs with which the machinist is replaced; then discusses the same process in several other fields of manufacture, and the accompanying ideological pronouncements about easing labor, etc., which ignore the true effects. This whole process of technological development is rendered more irrational by the need to increase profits, which means once again that costs are the most important deciding factor.
But the increasing productivity of labor is neither sought nor utilized by capitalism from the point of view of the satisfaction of human needs. Rather, powered by the needs of the capital accumulation process, it becomes a frenzied drive which approaches the level of a generalized social insanity. Never is any level of productivity regarded as sufficient. (141)
In this setting, the development of technology takes the form of a headlong rush in which social effects are largely disregarded, priorities are set only by the criteria of profitability, and the equitable spread, reasonable assimilation, and selective appropriation of the fruits of science, considered from the social point of view, remain the visions of helpless idealists. (142)
Braverman distinguishes between “truly productive” and “wasteful” labor:
Each advance in productivity shrinks the number of truly productive workers, enlarges the number of workers who are available to be utilized in the struggles between corporations over the distribution of the surplus, expands the use of labor 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 labor.
This does not solve the crisis of the need for always growing productivity:
where they cannot accomplish a large saving of labor by a revolution in production they achieve the same effect by a degradation of the product. (143) [in other words, the result of automation will often be an inferior product; this is okay since the goal is saving money.]
He gives examples from other industries such as the construction industry, which moves toward prefabs, deskilling, etc.; furniture production, meatpacking, apparel, typesetting. He turns to the discussion of James R Bright's study, which is unlike all other bourgeois studies in that it gets at how automation actually affects the worker. This is not Bright’s actual intention, just an insight arising out of his approach. Bright identifies 17 "mechanization levels" (listed on page 149), the first several of which may involve increasing amounts of skill (because mechanization is used to extend effect of a tool controlled by worker), but as the levels get higher, control becomes more and more externalized, resulting in less skill and knowledge of worker. Bright talks about the distinction between “machinists” and “machine operators,” who operate at the higher levels of mechanization; according to Bright, the worker becomes less of a machine “operator” and more of a “watchman, a monitor, a helper” (quoted on 150). Bright expresses surprises that his study found that the “upgrading effect” [expected by the ideology of automation] is rarely substantiated: instead workers are almost always deskilled. This includes “maintenance organization,” i.e., the workers who maintain the equipment; the pro-automation argument is that these workers will need to be more skilled, but Bright found this happens less often than their deskilling. Skilled maintenance workers turn out to be a small subset.
Braverman discusses this phenomenon as it applies to consumers, through home appliances and automobiles:
While the consumer finds it expensive to buy an entire new assembly in order to replace a part worth a few cents, and also finds the consequent deterioration of repair skills among servicemen exasperating, in industry, where the length of time the production system is shut down for repairs is the most important and expensive factor, replacing entire assemblies is by far the cheapest way. (151,154)
The process results in the deskilling of repair mechanics, even in factories, where they just replace modules which have indicated their own failure through sensors (because having the system shut down for repairs any amount of time is more expensive than fixing the part) [This is given as an example of inefficiency, of the drive to keep production moving, but presumably these modules could be swapped out and fixed (by more skilled mechanics), then held in reserve for when they are next needed?]
He states the Marxist theory of machines as products of (not replacements for) labor power:
Considered only in their physical aspect, machines are nothing but developed instruments of production whereby humankind increases the effectiveness of its labor. Just as in producing a simple tool the worker fashions, preparatory to the direct production process itself, an aid for that process, in the same way the production of modern means of production, no matter how complex or developed, represents the expenditure of labor time not for the direct making of the product but for the making of instruments to help in the making of the product or service. This past labor, incorporated into instruments of production, imparts its value to the product piecemeal, as it is used up in productions – a fact which the capitalist recognizes in the depreciation allowance. (157)
The labor embodied in machines is dead labor, contrasted with the living labor input from workers in the production of the actual product. Dead labor becomes part of capital: “The ideal toward which capitalism strives is the domination of dead labor over living labor” (157). This begins as allegory (in Marx’s time) but has become a “physical fact” over the course of the 20th Century.
It is not the machine but the capitalist system that creates this problem:
It is of course this “master,” standing behind the machine, who dominates, pumps dry, the living labor power; it is not the productive strength of machinery that weakens the human race, but the manner in which it is employed in capitalist social relations. (158)
To see the machine itself as the enemy is an error, a form of fetishism (and all very hauntological):
The machine, the mere product of human labor and ingenuity, designed and constructed by humans and alterable by them 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 invested with designs upon the human race.
In a footnote, Braverman asserts that “bourgeois ideologists” either love or hate machines, but in both cases fetishize them; he gives example of Ellul, and defines fetishism as “the reification of a social relation.”
This fetishism achieves its greatest force when it attaches to those products of men’s hands which, in the form of machinery, become capital. Acting for the master in a way which he plans with inexhaustible care and precision, they seem in human eyes to act for themselves and out of their own inner necessities. (159)
In reality, machinery embraces a host of possibilities, many of which are systematically thwarted, rather than developed, by capital.
Braverman lays out his own statement of [Bookchin’s thesis]:
An automatic system of machinery opens up the possibility of the true control over a highly productive factory by a relatively small corps of workers, providing these workers attain the level of mastery over the machinery offered by engineering knowledge, and providing they then share out among themselves the routines of the operation, from the most technically advanced to the most routine. This tendency to socialize labor, and to make of it an engineering enterprise on a high level of technical accomplishment, is, considered abstractly, a far more striking characteristic of machinery in its fully developed state than any other. Yet this promise, which has been repeatedly held out with every technical advance since the Industrial Revolution, is frustrated by the capitalist effort to reconstitute and even deepen the division of labor in all of its worst aspects, despite the fact that this division of labor becomes more archaic with every passing day. [Emphasis added]
Yet here is Braverman’s rejoinder to Bookchin’s optimism, that the historical trend is rendering worker control more and more difficult to achieve:
This observation may easily be verified by the fact that workers in each industry today are far less capable of operating that industry than were the workers of a half-century ago, and even less than those of a hundred years ago. The “progress” of capitalism seems only to deepen the gulf between worker and machine and to subordinate the worker ever more decisively to the yoke of the machine.
In a lengthy footnote he discusses a quote from Marx which according to Braverman is often mistaken for a claim that capitalist automation would eventually create more knowledgeable/skilled workers, but per Braverman’s reading the opposite is the case: capitalism has stood in the way of this. He describes the current division of labor as “the subject of a veritable religion” and compares apologists of this “barbarous relic” to the apologists for slavery (160).
And it is truly in this way that workers, so long as they remain servants of capital instead of freely associated producers who control their own labor and their own destinies, work every day to build for themselves more “modern,” more “scientific,” more dehumanized prisons of labor. (161)