re comments on my Rethinking labor process theory

From: Paul Adler (
Date: Thu Jan 22 2004 - 08:29:36 PST

I wanted to thank the folks who responded to my article on Rethinking
Labor Process Theory. I think it might be useful to recap (what I
understood to be) the main points that came up and to respond briefly:

** Andy Blunden (1/10/04) pointed out that socialization is not just
a matter of relations woven among workers in production: commerce
(market exchange) also brings together people previously isolated
(albeit in a way mediated by the 'cash nexus')
        I think this is a terrific point that my paper missed
entirely. I've been struck by how much sympathy (empathy is the
better word perhaps) for workers in developing countries was created
by the anti-sweatshop campaign. The fact that our t-shirts are
produced in China or Thailand -- even if they make their way to us
via long supply-chains of (sometimes more and sometimes less)
independent firms -- does indeed create the possibility of a genuine
human, ideational connection between the producers there and the
consumers here in the US. The anti-sweatshop movement's successes in
turning this business/material connection into a human/empathic one
is testimony to the socializing effects of the world market.
        I'm assuming Andy would agree that this socialization reaches
a qualitatively new level when it enters the sphere of production as
distinct from the sphere of circulation. I need to do a better job of
positioning the socialization 'trope' relative to the basic concepts
of marxist theory.

** Steve Gabosch (1/12/04): finds contradictory tendencies similar to
those I outline in his experience at Boeing. He suggests that the
'socialization' argument might offer a new perspective for the union
        Thanks so much for this, Steve! A story might be relevant.
One of the experiences that set me on this path in my research dates
to my time as a researcher in France in the late 1970s. At the time,
important sectors of the union movement were developing a critique of
the capitalist division of labor very much along the neo-Marxist
lines my paper describes. (Braverman was a common reference. Similar
arguments were heard on the left-wing of the union movements in
Germany, Italy, and the UK.) Since the French unions were rather
strong in the service sector, we heard a lot from them about how
computerization (under capitalism) inevitably led to a deskilling of
office jobs, just as it had led to the deskilling of factory jobs.
        I recall vividly the frustration with this analysis that was
expressed by union activists I knew in the insurance industry. These
activists felt that the progressive wing of the union movement was
totally discrediting itself with this deskilling analysis, since
everyone who actually worked in the insurance industry had already
concluded that computerization was having a hugely positive effect on
most workers' well-being: eliminating a lot of truly mind-numbing
form-filling-and-filing jobs, and encouraging the emergence of
broader, "case management" job-designs where a single worker could
handle many facets of a client's problem rather than passing it along
the office-world equivalent of an assembly-line for processing by a
series of ultra-specialized office workers. Yes, there was a risk of
some relatively low-skilled workers losing their jobs, and even some
highly skilled positions might be lost or "restructured," but these
represented but a small number in comparison with the much larger
number of workers for whom technological change and the associated
work reorganization was largely positive.
        I was struck then that the unions -- esp the most progressive
ones -- were incapable of articulating a "progressive" position that
simultaneously embraced the positive effects of (capitalist)
automation on the majority of workers and defended the rights of the
minority of workers who were "losers" in this automation process
(rights to retraining and reemployment, for example). If workers are
going to become the "leading force" in society, and if unions are
going to play a role in that, then surely unions will need to
articulate some such "progressive" line. To date, I have found very
few unions capable of doing that. Perhaps the best of those I've
studied are the Australian unions in the 1980s. (See Max Ogden's
chapter in a collection I edited: Technology and the Future of Work,
New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.)

** Victor (1/12/04) made several points. First, that my account
ignores the way that capitalist relations of production give a
distinctive "form" to socialization, one he calls "diversification"
(by which I understand him to mean fragmentation) -- which serves to
"divide and rule" the working class.
        There are certainly centrifugal forces at work. But perhaps
it's useful to distinguish a few types of such forces:
* Many of these forces operate in what marxist theory calls the
ideological and political "superstructure" (the world of Karl
Rove...). Obvious enough.
* Under the pressure of capitalist relations of production, workers
in competing firms find that their employment prospects are
conditioned by their success in competition against workers in other
firms and regions. Thus fragmentation rather than unification.
* Under the pressure of evolving forces of production, workers in a
given occupation sometimes find that occupation broken up into more
specialized components (some higher-skilled and some lower-skilled.
But here, you see, I think capitalist firms must simultaneously
ensure the "integration" of this more "differentiated" (i.e.
heterogeneous) collective worker. Thus "socialization".
        Second, he points out that I miss the importance of
"emotional-social solidarity" in contemporary workplaces, esp evident
in Japan, Deming's views, the 1930s Human Relations school.
        This is a terrific point. I have another paper that discusses
what I think you're getting at, and you're surely right that it
deserves discussion here. The "human relations" school is much
maligned (as "cow sociology" arguing for giving cows nicer
surroundings so they can be milked more productively...), but, I
agree with you, represents something much more ambiguous and more
        In much neo-Marxist work, this "emotional-social solidarity"
is presented as if it were merely a matter of securing consent and
obscuring exploitation -- i.e. "false consciousness" (M. Burawoy is
the main reference on this idea, almost hegemonic in (neo-) Marxist
labor sociology.) I think you and I are on the same wavelength (but
perhaps not!) in seeing this "subjective" aspect of the labor process
not as reflecting only capitalist relations of production, but also
(and mainly?) as reflecting the advanced state of the productive
forces: modern factories need workers' constructive engagement.
First, much production is organized in teams, and these teams require
of workers considerable social skills. This team organization is an
organizing principle that should be understood as part of the forces
of production of modern capitalism. Second, modern production relies
on highly automated machines whose functioning often requires more
than merely following rules (think of the proactive problem-solving
required to use a PC!!). Compare these conditions to the much
"coarser" requirements of factory production a century or so ago.
        Third, you express concerns about "orthodox marxism" and
about my discussion of "technological determinism"
        Frankly, I had trouble following your argument here Victor: I
wasn't sure I understood. I wonder if you could clarify your
argument. Perhaps we should do that off-line so we don't bore the
        Finally, you had concerns about whether my model (worker,
tool, organization, object) was indeed one of "production in general"
and suggested a different reading of Marx ("human activity > tool >
subjects of production > product and then > labor").
        Here too I confess that I had difficulty following your
argument -- but I'm most eager to pursue the discussion, since there
is probably something fishy about my argument if I had to "tweak"
Marx's own characterization of the labor process so substantially (in
particular, replacing "purposeful activity, the work itself" with
"worker"). I may be reading Marx's characterization of the elements
of the labor process in too static a way. My approach was based on my
reading of Engestrom's triangle chart. I would love to hear people's
thoughts on this.

** A final query: The basic story I try to explore is how the
experience of socialized production changes the worker's subjective
identity. I probably need to develop a more cogent story about
exactly how this causal chain really works. Perhaps folks on this
list might have some suggestions. So far, I have these elements of a

* I have found Norbert Elias' work on manners, civility and
civilization very useful here -- it is profoundly (beautifully)
(paleo-) Marxist, linking changes in the broader economic landscape
with changes in manners and in the nature of people's
self-understanding. I wonder if others on this list have found Elias'
work useful. But it seems to me Elias is too descriptive and
insufficiently theoretical on exactly how changes in social context
reshapes subjective identities (the mechanisms linking the two).

* I have been inspired by Vygostky's thesis that "Social relations or
relations among people genetically underlie all higher functions and
their relationships" -- I wonder if it is possible to use Vygotsky
to strengthen my account of how "more directly social" identities
(seen as a "higher mental function") emerge in the workers'
subjectivity as a result of their involvement in a more socialized
production process.

* And I have also found Mike Cole's discussion of "prolepsis" useful:
can "social production" be said to function as "implicature",
proleptically drawing the worker into a more directly social

Thanks again for such thoughtful and challenging comments!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Prof. Paul S. Adler,
Management and Organization Dept,
Marshall School of Business, 
University of Southern California,
Los Angeles, CA 90089-0808
USC office tel: (213) 740-0748 
Home office tel: (818) 981-0115
Home office fax: (818) 981-0116
List of publications and course outlines at: 
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