Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Labor and Monopoly Capital, Chapter 15

Summary of Chapter 15: Clerical Workers

This is the first chapter of a new section on “the growing working-class occupations,” and at 42 pages, quite lengthy by Braverman’s standards. The shifting use of the term “clerical work” has led to confusion, because over time this does not represent “the continuous evolution of a single stratum” (203). Rather, the clerical workers of the 19th century are the “ancestors of modern professional management,” and today’s clerical workers are in fact a new stratum. Acamedic sociology and popular journalism fail to understand this, leading to “a drastic misconception of modern society” whereby great numbers of working class occupations are miscategorized as “middle class,” or with the “common but absolutely meaningless term ‘white-collar worker’” (204).

The creation of a new class of workers, having little continuity with the small and privileged clerical stratum ofthe past, is emphasized by fundamental changes in two other respects: composition by sex, and relative pay. (205)

He documents the shift from 19th century clerical work being paid twice as much as production work, to being paid at rates lower than “so-called blue collar work.” Clerical work in earlier times was craft-like; skilled, and lower levels worked up the ladder to mastery and/or management. He discusses the various industries which rely heavily on clerical work. A footnote on banking:

The fact that banking corporations produce nothing, but merely profit from the mass of capital in money form at their disposal through activities which once went by the name “usury,” no longer subjects them to discredit in monopoly capitalist society as it once did in feudal and in early capitalist society. In fact, financial institutions are accorded a place at the pinnacle of the social division of labor. This is because they have mastered the art of expanding capital without the necessity of passing it through any production process whatsoever. (The magical appearance of the feat merely conceals the fact that such corporations are appropriating a share in the values produced elsewhere.) The cleanliness and economy ofthe procedure, its absolute purity as a form of the accumulation of capital, now elicit nothing but admiration from those who are still tied to production. (208)

These management functions of control and appropriation have in themselves become labor processes. They are conducted by capital in the same way that it carries on the labor processes of production: with wage labor purchased on a large scale in a labor market and organized into huge “production” machines according to the same princi­ples that govern the organization of factory labor. Here the productive proc­esses of society disappear into a stream of paper – a stream of paper, moreover, which is processed in a continuous flow like that of the cannery, the meatpacking line, the car assembly conveyor, by workers organized in much the same way.

This ghostly form of the production process assumes an ever greater importance in capitalist society, not only because of the requirements of the new way in which production is organized, and not only because of the growing need for coordination and control, but for another and more significant reason as well. In the social forms of capitalism all products of labor carry, apart from their physical characteristics, the invisible marks of ownership. Apart from their physical form, there is their social form as value. From the point of view of capital, the representation of value is more important than the physical form or useful properties of the labor product. The particular kind of commodity being sold means little; the net gain is everything. A portion of the labor of society must therefore be devoted to the accounting of value. As capitalism becomes more complex and develops into its monopoly stage, the accounting of value becomes infinitely more complex. The number of intermediaries between production and consumption increases, so that the value accounting of the single commodity is duplicated through a number of stages. The battle to realize values, to turn them into cash, calls for a special accounting of its own. Just as in some industries the labor expended upon marketing begins to approach the amount expended upon the production of the commodities being sold, so in some industries the labor expended upon the mere transformation of the form of value (from the commodity form into the form of money or credit) – including the policing, the cashiers and collection work, the recordkeeping, the accounting, etc. – begins to approach or surpass the labor used in producing the underlying commodity or service. And finally, as we have already noted, entire “industries” come into existence whose activity is concerned with nothing but the transfer of values and the accounting entailed by this. (209)

He notes a recurrent theme: the inefficiencies of capitalism leads to the new technologies being used in more wasteful ways than would presumably be the case in, say, an economy organized through worker cooperatives. The distrust between corporations means they all do their own accounting, with great reduplication of effort: “each set of records is as a rule a private affair to be used not for helpful coordination but as a weapon.”

The internal record keeping of each corporate institution is, moreover, constructed in a way which assumes the possible dishonesty, disloyalty, or laxity of every human agency which it employs; this, in fact, is the first, principle of modern accounting. (209-10)

The need for independent outside audits, to establish the veracity of records, is an additional reduplication, all based on “presumed dishonesty” of corporations and their employees in the general capitalist context of universal mutual suspicion.

Thus the value-form of commodities separates itself out from the physical form as a vast paper empire which under capitalism becomes as real as the physical world, and which swallows ever increasing amounts of labor. This is the world in which value is kept track of, and in which surplus value is transferred, struggled over, and allocated. A society which is based upon the value-form surrenders more and more of its working population to the complex ramifications of the claims to ownership of value. (210)

He explores the history of office managership as a specialized form of management, dealing with this workforce; by 1917 there was already a book emulating Taylor’s system, applied to offices. He discusses the various ways typists, mail clerks, etc. are measured and controlled in manners similar to factory production. It is the mere fact of surveillance and the fear it generates, rather then the mystique of “scientific” techniques, which increases production:

A great many of the effects obtained by scientific management came from this alone, despite the pretense that the studies were being conducted for purposes of methods improvement. When Leffingwell says, for example, that “the output of one clerk was doubled merely by the re-arrangement of the work on the desk,” we may understand this was an effect of close and frightening supervision rather than a miracle of efficiency; this was understood by the managers as well, although concealed beneath a “scientific” mystique. (213)

He discusses the control of workers through piecework systems, and the placement of water fountains, etc. to limit walking time; this leads to some great comments, comparing this to Ford’s assembly line, and to a feed-lot:

All motions or energies not directed to the increase of capital are of course “wasted” or “misspent.” That every individual needs a variety of movements and changes of routine in order to maintain a state of physical health and mental freshness, and that from this point of view such motion is not wasted, does not enter into the case. The solicitude that brings everything to the worker’s hand is of a piece with the fattening arrangements of a cattle feed-lot or poultry plant, in that the end sought is the same in each case: the fattening of the corporate balance sheet. The accompanying degenerative effects on the physique and well-being of the worker are not counted at all. (214-5)

Just like in the factory, the transformation of office work comes about through the technical division of labor, and increased mechanization; he discusses these in turn. Office work is analyzed as a “continuous flow process;” just as with production, there is the increased replacement of all-around clerical workers with detail workers:

the work of the office is analyzed and parcelled out among a great many detail workers, who now lose all comprehension of the process as a whole and the policies which underlie it. The special privilege of the clerk of old, that of being witness to the operation of the enterprise as a whole and gaining a view of its progress toward its ends and its condition at any given moment, disappears. Each of the activities requiring interpretation of policy or contact beyond the department or section becomes the province of a higher functionary.(217)

Clerical work by its nature lends itself more easily than production work to this rationalization process; the previous division between manual labor of the shop, and mental labor of the office no longer applies. He discusses Babbage’s “On the Division of Mental Labour,” which provides a historical example from decimal conversion in French Revolution, which was accomplished through a division of labor into three levels of workers, in terms of how much of the overall process they need to understand, and how much skill they need.

The way is thereby opened for two conclusions which capitalism finds irresistible, regardless of their consequences for humanity. The first is that the labor of educated or better-paid persons should never be “wasted” on matters that can be accomplished for them by others of lesser training. The second is that those of little or no special training are superior for the performance of routine work, in the first place because they “can always be purchased at an easy rate,” and in the second place because, undistracted by too much in their brains, they will perform routine work more correctly and faithfully. (219-20)

Babbage also foresaw a “calculating engine” that would replace the lowest kind of worker, and simplify the work of the middle tier.

In Babbage’s vision we can see the conversion of the entire process into a mechanical routine supervised by the “first section” which, at that point, would be the only group required to understand either mathematical science or the process itself. The work of all others would be converted into the “preparation of data” and the operation of machinery. (220)

The progressive elimination of thought from the work of the office worker thus takes the form, at first, of reducing mental labor to a repetitious performance of the same small set of functions. The work is still performed in the brain, but the brain is used as the equivalent of the hand of the detail worker in production, grasping and releasing a single piece of “data” over and over again. The next step is the elimination of the thought process completely – or at least insofar as it is ever removed from human labor – and the increase of clerical categories in which nothing but manual labor is performed.

This reduction of work to abstract labor, to finite motions of hands, feet, eyes, etc., along with the absorption of sense impressions by the brain, all of which is measured and analyzed without regard to the form of the product or process, naturally has the effect of bringing together as a single field of management study the work in offices and in factories.

B goes into lots of relishing detail on time-motion measures of different steps in office work (walking, typing, reading figures, using scissors) with occasional somewhat catty observations; even the time to punch a time clock is measured in detail. He provides a nice observation on one table of the times involved in punching a numeric key on a typewriter:

It is worth noting that this simple list of three unit times, with their total, is made into a “table” by the addition of two useless lines and two useless columns. This is typical of the manner in which management “experts” dress their presentations in the trappings of mathematics in order to give them the appearance of “science”; whether the sociologists have learned this from the schools of business administration or the other way around would make a nice study. (224)

In the clerical routine of offices, the use of the brain is never entirely done away with – any more than it is entirely done away with in any form of manual work. The mental processes are rendered repetitious and routine, or they are reduced to so small a factor in the work process that the speed and dexterity with which the manual portion of the operation can be performed dominates the labor process as a whole. More than this cannot be said of any manual labor process, and once it is true of clerical labor, labor in that form is placed on an equal footing with the simpler forms of so-called blue-collar manual labor. For this reason, the traditional distinctions between “manual” and “white-collar” labor, which are so thoughtlessly and widely used in the literature on this subject, represent echoes of a past situation which has virtually ceased to have meaning in the modern world of work. And with the rapid progress of mechanization in offices it becomes all the more important to grasp this. (224-5)

In mechanization of the office it is no longer motion and production per se which the machines take control of, but information:

Machinery that is used to multiply the useful effects of labor in production may be classified, as we have seen, according to the degree of its control over motion. Insofar as control over motion rests with the operator, the machine falls short of automatic operation; insofar as it is rendered automatic, direct control has been transferred to the machine itself. In office machinery, however, the control over motion is generally incidental to the purpose of the machine. Thus the rapidity and precision of the high-speed printer are not required in order to print rapidly – there are other and faster ways to ink characters onto paper – but in order to record a controlled flow of information as it is processed in the computer. It is one part of a machine system designed to control not motion but information. (225)

As long as information was only conveyed in notation comprehensible by humans, “each of these machines could only carry or process information through a very short part of its total cycle before it again had to involve the human brain to move it into its next position. In this sense, the office process resembled a pipeline that required a great many pumping stations at very close intervals.” He discusses the invention of punched cards that machines can read (for the 1890 census); developments along this line (electronic impulses, etc.) result in much greater speed and scale for the mechanized flow of information:

This automatic system for data-processing resembles automatic systems of production machinery in that it re-unifies the labor process, eliminating the many steps that had previously been assigned to detail workers. But, as in manufacturing, the office computer does not become, in the capitalist mode of production, the giant step that it could be toward the dismantling and scaling down of the technical division of labor. Instead, capitalism goes against the grain of the technological trend and stubbornly reproduces the outmoded division of labor in a new and more pernicious form. The development of computer work has been so recent and so swift that here we can see reproduced in compressed form the evolution of labor processes in accord with this tendency. (226-7)

The positions of systems analyst and programmer are at the top of the new computer hierarchy; that of programmer becomes split into program analysts who are like engineers, and program coders who merely carry out the process; below these computer work is working class, with pay scales which align with those in factories. Key punch operator is the single largest job created by computerization, in B’s day. These jobs require less and less training; they are very boring, with no possibilty for advancement, and high turnover. B quotes an insurance company vice president, who notes that “the machines” keep the key-punch girls chained to their desks; B observes that this is typical “fetishism,” as it is the boss, not the machines, which does this. (232) He quotes debates among managers, etc., about how educated the girls should be, is a high school diploma really required? There is the question of [overqualified] workers, “of too high an intellectual calibre for the new simple machine jobs,” because they don’t stay in data-processing, because it is dead end job.

These effects of computer mechanization impact all clerical workers, not just those “grouped immediately around the computer” (234) for two reasons. First, the need to create information in a form that computers can understand and process spreads throughout the entire office, as “the reduction of data to symbolic form with accurate positional attributes becomes, increasingly, the business of the office as a whole, as a measure to economize on labor costs.” Second, in addition to computers, there are other machines which are being inserted into office work, which result in the deskilling of workers. He gives the example of bank tellers, whose work is more and more automated and controlled, and faces replacement with ATMs.

B traces the history of the occupation of secretary; it is motivated by the Babbage principle (the secretary does work more cheaply, which it would be wasteful for the manager to be bothered with).; plus there is the prestige factor of having a “personal secretary.” The division of labor in office work spreads to “wherever a mass of work may be subdivided and its “lower” portions separated out and delegated” (236). Having a personal secretary becomes a “traditional and entrenched privilege” to the alarm of upper management, who seek to “tackle this monstrosity in order to reduce the drain on the corporate pocketbook;” yet “these very trappings and pretenses of managerial status” are key to the loyalty of lower management.

There is ample evidence, however, that this situation is ending, and that management is now nerving itself for major surgery upon its own lower limbs.

This is done by breaking down the work of secretaries into typing, and administrative routine, then delegating these to different groups of workers.The first function is assumed by typists using word processing machines (pre computers per se), who “process” the words coming from “word originators,” meaning managers, etc. B interestingly gives a definition of “word processing” from the journal Administrative Management, 1972, as automated word substitution – personnel are trained on codes the machine can recognize, so it will spit out the formula or phrase; this speeds up typing and reduces the need for training. [This is an interesting predecessor to autocomplete, and for that matter to text-generating AI.]

The second function of the secretary (filing, phone answering, and mail handling )is taken over by an “administrative support center” serving four to eight “principals” (managers). Thus is the modern office converted into a factory-like system. Just as with the factory, the struggle over knowledge remains crucial in the office:

The greatest single obstacle to the proper functioning of such an office is the concentration of information and decision-making capacity in the minds of key clerical employees. Just as Frederick Taylor diagnosed the problem of the management of a machine shop as one of removing craft information from the workers, in the same way the office manager views with horror the possibility of dependence upon the historical knowledge of the office past, or of the rapid flow of information in the present, on the part of some of his or her clerical workers. (239)

[This reminds me of one of my old Anthropology departments, in which the Department Secretary was key to running everything in the department, while faculty members took turns playing the role of “department head” or whatever. Then as I was leaving the university was downsizing, combining department staff, probably with disastrous consequences for continuity and the ability to get anything done.]

Mechanization produces the recording of everything that is done, and mechanical control, and is thus ideal for freeing management from reliance on this kind of worker knowledge:

But this conversion of the office flow into a high-speed industrial process requires the conversion of the great mass of office workers into more or less helpless attendants of that process. As an inevitable concomitant of this, the ability of the office worker to cope with deviations from the routine, errors, special cases, etc., all of which require information and training, virtually disappears. The number of people who can operate the system, instead of being operated by it, declines precipitously.

B observes:

Managers often wag their heads over the “poor quality of office help” available on the labor market, although it is their own system of office operations which is creating the office population suited to it. This complaint is, unfortunately, too often echoed by unthinking “consumers” when they run into trouble with an office, as they often do. Such difficulties will tend to increase in the same way that the quality of factory production tends to decline and the servicing of consumer appliances tends to worsen even as it becomes more expensive, and for the same reasons. (240)

[This reminds me of a guy working in the management of a solar panel company who told me, some years ago, that they preferred hiring people without experience because it was easier to train than to retrain; I immediately thought, who would want to go into a field where having experience has no value, or is even seen as a disadvantage? You would learn skills you could never use if you needed to switch companies, or moved to another city, for instance.]

When office work was first expanding in early 20th century, it was misunderstood as a new middle class. B points out that the commonly used demarcators “white collar” (dress) and “salaried employee” (form of compensation) are merely secondary characteristics of these workers, not true markers of their class relation to the means of production. He provides another eloquent and impassioned footnote on how the term “white-collar” plays a obfuscatory role:

The continued use of this terminology long after the realities behind it have disappeared is one of the greatest sources of confusion in the analysis of this subject. A term which lumps together into a single class grouping the authoritative executive representing capital on the one hand, and the interchangeable parts of the office machine which serves him on the other, can no longer be considered useful. This terminology is, however, considered serviceable by those who are alarmed by the results of a more realistic terminology – those, for instance, whose “sociology” pursues apologetic purposes. For them, such terms as “white-collar employees” conveniently lump into a single category the well-paid, authoritative, and desirable positions at the top of the hierarchy and the mass of proletarianized inferiors in a way that makes possible a rosier picture: higher “average” pay scales, etc. In this use of the term, the '”white-collar” category tends to get its occupational flavor from the engineers, managers, and professors at the top of the hierarchy, while its impressive numerical masses are supplied by the millions of clerical workers, in much the same way that the stars of an opera company occupy the front of the stage while the spear-carriers provide the massive chorus. (241)

As machinery, “dead labor” plays an increasing role in the office:

The use of automatic and semi-automatic machine systems in the office has the effect of completely reversing the traditional profile of office costs. A situation in which the cost of operating a large office consisted almost entirely of the salaries paid to clerical employees has changed to one in which a large share of the total is now invested in the purchase (or paid out monthly for the leasing) of expensive equipment. Past or “dead” labor in the form of machinery owned by capital, now employs living labor, in the office just as in the factory. But for the capitalist, the profitability of this employment is very much a function of time, of the rapidity with which dead labor absorbs living. The use of a great deal of expensive equipment thus leads to shift work, which is particularly characteristic of computer operations. (243)

He discusses the mechanization-enabled separation of office spaces, with fancy executive offices downtown, and lower clerical work relegated to lower rent districts. The class distinction between production and office work is disappearing, though a gender distinction is reinforced:

The sex barrier that assigns most office jobs to women, and that is enforced both by custom and hiring practice, has made it possible to lower wage rates in the clerical category, as we have seen, below those in any category of manual labor.

...one of the most common United States occupational combinations within the family is that in which the husband is an operative [i.e., works in production] and the wife a clerk. (245)

He provides several lengthy quotes on “semi-skilled labor” as an amorphous category; then summarizes:

The problem of the so-called employee or white-collar worker which so bothered early generations of Marxists, and which was hailed by anti-Marxists as a proof of the falsity of the “proletarianization” thesis, has thus been unambiguously clarified by the polarization of office employment and the growth at one pole of an immense mass of wage-workers. The apparent trend to a large nonproletarian “middle class” has resolved itself into the creation of a large proletariat in a new form. In its conditions of employment, this working population has lost all former superiorities over workers in industry, and in its scales of pay it has sunk almost to the very bottom. But beneath them, in this latter respect at least, are the workers in service occupations and retail trade, whom we must consider next. (245)


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