Political economy of work (IIPPE)
Gary Slater: The Political Economy of Work in Modern Britain / Bruno Tinel: The Positive Contribution of Braverman on the Labour Process to Understanding Today’s Capitalism. / Andreas Malm: Class Struggle in the Air: Revisiting the Origins of Global Warming in Early Capitalist Development
The Political Economy of Work in Modern Britainby Gary Slater
In the wake of earlier crises and recent technological advance informed comment points to a radical transformation in the character of paid work. Grounded in narratives about the revolutionary effects of globalisation and new information and communication technologies (ICT), the emerging consensus anticipates a future of work that has few connections with the past. Key points of reference from across the social sciences include the demise of ‘usefulness’ as workers are rendered redundant by the quickening advance of technology (Sennett, 2006); the inevitable decline of labour standards in developed Western economies (Beck, 2000); governments rendered impotent by unleashed capital (Glyn, 2006; Gray, 1998; and Giddens, 2007); and, in extremis, the collapse of paid work itself (Rifkin, 1996). However compelling at first reading, these apocalyptic scenarios are revealed on closer scrutiny to be limited in both theoretical and empirical content.
Bringing forward new longitudinal evidence on the structure of paid work in Britain, our analysis challenges the conventional wisdom on the depth and detail of the alleged radical break in the character of paid work. It argues that contemporary labour divisions are shaped in important ways by specific material and historical legacies. Many influential contemporary accounts, by contrast, focus on the partial and the particular as a basis for grand narratives of change. Drawing on census data over five decades, this paper situates current trends in a wider historical context. Updating and extending the approach taken by Routh (1965), the extent and significance of a recent shift towards a ‘knowledge economy’ in Britain is brought into question. Buttressed by analyses from the Labour Force Survey, evidence is presented that demonstrates the continuing salience of manual wage labour.
Dissolving the wage-labour system, and consigning large bureaucratic corporations to the historical waste bin, the pundits evoke images of an economy in which the institutions that shaped the organisation of work and workers’ lives in the twentieth century are simply abolished. There is moreover, a strong anti-productionist slant to the argument that labour markets of the future will be shaped by transactions between ‘intangible inputs’ (knowledge, ideas and information), but the evidence reveals a different reality. Too often the persistence of manual jobs and the continued importance of manufacturing to the health of the British economy are overlooked by commentators, social scientists and policymakers alike.
The paper challenges scenarios that speak of an ascendant ‘weightless’ economy and an irreversible decline of the material world of production and service provision. It points instead to the salience in Britain of an economy propped up by millions of manual, routine and relatively low paid jobs. Far from abolishing these jobs, contemporary economic forces are increasing their number. Yet, informed by the futurologists, the British government has been wary of extending labour market regulation too far for fear of choking-off the rise of the new economy and, as yet, there is no indication that the current crisis has altered that stance. By contrast, our analysis highlights the danger that this, in fact, serves to consolidate existing weaknesses around low wages, low patterns of skill formation and comparatively uncompetitive production relations.
The Positive Contribution of Braverman on the Labour Process to Understanding Today’s Capitalism.by Bruno Tinel
An heterodox analysis of the production process, in particular a Marxian approach, cannot be built on a so-called “theory of the firm” otherwise it would take the bourgeois concepts as granted, those exact concepts that mask and even reverse the real social relations of production. As any “theory of the firm” is by definition ideological, in the Marxian tradition the notion of firm itself is not presumed but explained as part of a larger theory of production and exploitation. In this framework, the dynamics of the division of labour (DoL) is one of the basic elements to assess the organisation of the labour process and the class structure of the economy. Indeed, the DoL both refers to the concrete uses of labour-power and investigates the structural causal factors of its exchange value through relative surplus-value.
After Chapters 13, 14 and 15 of ''Capital'' and the unpublished “Chapter Six”, Braverman’s ''Labor and Monopoly Capital'' is one of the main contributions on this topic. Unfortunately, as shown by Spencer , the labour process debate that ensued got stuck by post-modernists in subjectivist discussions instead of insisting on objective relations, which led to a relative acceptance of capitalism and to weaken the critique of its despotic order.
The present contribution aims at complementing Spencer’s case for Braverman by emphasizing the main points of his argument on the division of labour and management that are useful today to appraise qualitatively and quantitatively the workplace transformations since the 1970’s: reduction in command layers, vertical disintegration, individualisation of rewards and careers, use of new information and communication technologies, apparent rejuvenation of formal autonomy, new forms of control and supervision (objective - measurement systems - as well as subjective - moral pressure and oppressing managerial discourses), forms of worker resistance (strikes, sabotage, absenteeism, managers held hostages etc.), role of international trade (industrial relocation), deskilling of intellectual occupations and middle management, etc.
Among other objections, it has been reproached to Braverman to supposedly push class simplification in two groups too much meanwhile, on the contrary, the twentieth century witnessed the rise of a third class composed of intellectual wage labourers. On this issue of polarization, authors like Duménil and Lévy have focused their attention on the segmentation of the dominant class by analysing the managerial capitalism of the twentieth century as an extensive delegation of the tasks of the capitalist to specialised salaried workers. A second aim of this paper is to reinterpret their argument through Braverman’s understanding of capitalist division of labour. This global class structure interpretation of modern capitalism leads to the overcoming of the classical and unfruitful opposition between dual and segmented class fragmentation analysis of societies under capitalism as it includes in the same framework both bottom work execution and top management activities.
Class Struggle in the Air: Revisiting the Origins of Global Warming in Early Capitalist Developmentby Andreas Malm
In the literature on global warming, the industrial revolution is habitually referred to as the starting point for massive anthropogenic carbon emissions, pushing the biosphere out of Holocene equilibrium and towards catastrophic climate change. However, ice records with high resolution clearly show that emissions from the burning of fossil fuels did not put their imprint on the carbon cycle before 1850. Not until the second half of the nineteenth century did human activity transcend the barriers on carbon dioxide concentrations laid down since the last glacial period.
In 1850, the industrial revolution had been in full swing for a long time. The British capitalist economy had reached maturity. The heroic inventions of the industrial revolution were already in place and, indeed, they were still largely powered by traditional energy sources. Something is wrong with the standard accounts of the origins of global warming: massive anthropogenic carbon emissions cannot be identified with the industrial revolution ''as such.'' The discrepancy between such superficial chronologies and well-documented facts of energy use forces us to revisit the general introduction of fossil fuels in the British economy, whose consequences now appear ever more momentous by the day.
Let us therefore leave the noiseless atmosphere, where everything takes place on the surface, and follow the trace of the major greenhouse gas back into the hidden abode of production - for the decades around 1850 coincide not with the industrial revolution, but with a certain process in the capitalist organisation of work: the transition from ''absolute'' surplus value to ''relative'' surplus value as the dominant mode of surplus value production, or, from the formal to the real subordination of labour. One of the most salient features of this process was the extensive application of steam technology in the textile industry, from where it rapidly spread to other industries in Britain (and other Western countries). Precisely from this moment on, fossil energy became an integral part of the capitalist mode of production, carbon emissions began to grow secularly, and ‘human activities’ - the standard phrase in the literature, belying the singular particularity of these activities - overwhelmed the carbon cycle.
Far-fetched as it might initially sound, the origins of global warming cannot be separated from the struggles surrounding work in the British economy of mid-nineteenth century. In this presentation, I will propose some tentative hypotheses on how to disentangle the connections. Drawing on Marxist theories of technological change as intimately related to class struggle on the shop floor, and on data from the British economy as well as from atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, I will argue for the need to rethink the relation between fossil energy and work. The breakthrough for carbon-based technologies in mid-nineteenth century Britain should, furthermore, serve as a point of departure for analyzing this relation throughout later stages of capitalist development. There are indications that every major upswing, from the age of electricity to the era of globalization, has been based on repeating the original breakthrough at a higher level: re-organising work by means of extending the consumption of fossil energy, thereby increasing surplus value. Some tentative suggestions along these lines will be made.
As the dependency of capitalist economies on fossil energy appears intractable, the question of why some social forces are so deeply embedded in something so dangerous has become urgent.'' ''