Re: re comments on my Rethinking labor process theory

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Sun Jan 25 2004 - 10:38:03 PST

Victor's Jan 24 response to Paul was probably in color and clearly
distinguished from Paul's words, but the color didn't show up on my
computer this time around, so I had to insert names in the text to read
through the dialogue. I am re-sending Victor's post intact, with these
insertions added, for others that may have had this problem. I also
removed trailing previous posts.

Thanks so much to Mike for setting this excellent discussion in motion!

- Steve

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Subject: Re: re comments on my Rethinking labor process theory
Date: Sat, 24 Jan 2004 15:46:57 +0200
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Hope these additional comments clarify the earlier replies.


** 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 movement.

         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.)


      Considering that differential “skilling”(if I may) was one of the
more divisive of forces working on the proletariat of the century, it
suggests the not very surprising observation that the Neo-Marxism critique
of “deskilling” may represent more the consciousness of the professional
sectors of the “higher proletariat” than it does the proletariat as a
whole. More recently Unions in the European Community, have begun to sit
up and take notice of the new developments in labour relations that
maintain capital’s control of means of production under conditions of
extensive, large-scale socialization of forces of
production. Interestingly enough it appears that the “shwerpunkt” of their
strategy is the “personal contract” that isolates the contracting worker
from all agencies that might represent his interests, Report of a Seminar
Organized by UNI 7-8th Oct. 1999, “Personal
Contracts and the Trade Union Role” TUC Online (2 Jul 2002) “Unions win
ruling in European Court of Human
Details: (2.7.2002) Press release, CHAMBER JUDGMENT IN THE CASE OF WILSON &
KINGDOM issued by the Registrar,,
rather than changes in the forces of production (including “deskilling” or
rationalization of intellectual work). In my opinion these Unions have
read well the changing landscape of the forces of production and relations
of production and are building a firm basis for strategies that will make
advances on the other issues you raised; the rights of the minority of
workers who were "losers" in this automation process and rights to
retraining and reemployment, among others.


** 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. Understood.
    * 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".


It appears that the history of the socialization of labour can be more or
less be divided into stages representing both the changes in the forces of
production and the relations between labour and capital throughout the 20th
century. I was and still am rather struck with Andy’s discussion of the
evolution of management policies throughout the century Blunden, A (2003)
For Ethical Politic: Part Two: From Political Party to Cultural Politics
and favour his Taylorism, Fordism, and Toyotism schema for representing
these stages. Taylorism and Fordism certainly worked to diversify the
working class and to disestablish working-class unity by building large
industrial technical and administrative hierarchies accompanied by
elaborate differentiations of status and income. Galloping automation,
introduction of qualitatively improved instruments for information
management and communications and the closely related rationalization of
the intellectual aspects of all labour has rendered these expensive
hierarchies (expensive to train – college and university educations and so
on – and expensive to maintain) obsolete and is “making them history.” It
is quite likely that rationalization of intellectual labour and automation
of most manual labour will generate a much more homogeneous labouring force
than even that of the earliest phases of capitalist industry. Such a
change would be reflected in a much more homogeneous relation between
labour and capital and would likely be associated with a higher level of
proletarian class solidarity than was witnessed in the 20th century.


         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 interesting.

         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.


      Emotional-social issues are in my view an integral part of all
conscious activity. Any consideration of values whether conscious or
unconscious involves emotional issues, and there is no way that one can
disassociate the issue of values from Historical-Materialist analysis. See
Leont’ev, (1978) Marxism and Psychological Science, 5. Activity and
Personality, 5.4. Motives, Emotions, and Personality, “Emotions are not
subordinated to activity but appear to be its result and the “mechanism” of
its movement”

      One of the most irritating features of Neo-Marxist theorizing is
their profound ignorance of the conditions of the proletariat to which most
apparently have only the most ideational of relations. The worker and the
organizations that represent him in his relations with capital have as much
of an interest in the economic survival of his work place as do its
capitalist owners, and the enhancement of emotional-social solidarity
involved in the work process reflects both the consciousness of labour and
of capital of the advanced state of productive forces rather than confusion
on class issues. Frankly, as you may have noted, I have little use in
general with the concept of “false consciousness.” In general I regard it
as an excuse for the failures of incomplete or otherwise faulty analyses to
realize the objectives of their makers, period.


        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 list.


      I agree. My thoughts here are still “in process” and though relevant
to the discussion, are not well enough developed for public discussion.


         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 Engeström’s triangle
chart. I would love to hear people's thoughts on this.


      Engeström’s triangle chart ref is derived from Leont’evs writings on
Marxism and Psychology (1877) Activity and Consciousness, (1978) Marxism
and Psychological Science, 1. Marxism and Psychological Science, 1.2. The
Theory of Consciousness, which has its theoretical sources in Marx’s
materialist adaptation of Hegel’s Philosophy of Consciousness Hegel (1830)
Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Preliminaries and Logic, Marx
(1845) The German Ideology and (1866) Capital, and some of Lenin’s work
such as his critique of Positivist interpretations of Marx, Lenin (1908)
Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Naturally as a student of Vygotsky, he
derives much of the experimental proofs of the general theory of
consciousness from Vygotsky and his school Vygotsky (1932) Thought and
Language- esp. chaps. 4 and 5. The General Theory of Consciousness
(essentially the relation between subject and object as mediated by labour,
i.e. the negation of subject by labour, and the negation of the negation by
object) is of critical importance to Historical Materialism because as the
“General Theory of Consciousness” it is the paradigm for Historical
Material analysis of all subjects of conscious thought. It is for this
reason that Lenin (couldn’t locate the reference but Andy probably know it)
emphasized the importance of a sound acquaintance of Hegel’s Philosophy of
Consciousness for understanding Capital. The role of the “General Theory
of Consciousness” as the paradigm for research does NOT make it a catchall
for all theories of human activity. If the subject of consciousness under
investigation is the labour process (production regarded in isolation from
relations and modes of production) then the paradigm of the “General Theory
of Consciousness” is used to develop a separate Theory of the
Labour-Process Marx (1866) Capital, Part II The Production of Absolute
Surplus Value, Chapter VII The Labour Process and the Process of Producing
Surplus Value. Now, it appears to me that the subject of your paper is an
extension of Marx’s investigations of elementary production
(Production>Labour>Instruments of Production>Subjects of Production> -note
I’ve changed it a bit-) rather than an elaboration of theories of
consciousness (Subject>Labour>Object>) hence my proposal. Would it be
presumptuous to suggest that your tweaking of the Engeström model was an
intuitive recognition of its limitations as a Theory of Production?

      Marx is very explicit about there not being a “General Theory of
Production,” Marx (1859) Critique of Political Economy, Appendix I.
Production, Consumption, Distribution, Exchange (Circulation), 1.
Production A Theory of Production involves not only considerations of the
“Forces of Production,” but also of the “Relations” and “Modes of
Production, Marx (1859) Contributions of a Critique of Political Economy,
Preface. and these as well as the forces of production are situated in
singular historical-material conditions. It would be most interesting to
develop a Theory of Capitalist Production that is based on your convincing
presentation of the current state or, better, the probable future state of
the Forces of Production in developed capitalist political economies. As I
intimated earlier it appears that European Unions are well along the way in
realizing such an analysis.


** 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 story line:


       Leont’ev’s paradigm for the relation between action and need, as
represented in (1978) Marxism and Psychological Science, 5. Activity and
Personality, 5.4. Motives, Emotions, and Personality – especially the
section concerning Motives, Emotions, and Personality (Action > Need >
Action)– is a good starting point for building theories of particular
subjective identities, even if it is not itself a theory. Like
“production” and for the same reasons as for “production” there can be no
general theory of the formation of particular subjective identities. To
build a theory of particular subjective identities and their evolution you
must identify the particular subject/s of consciousness (relevant actions
if you will) that represent the experiences relevant to the formation of
that identity, determine the needs that are likely to be generated by the
experiences that “populate” the selected subject of consciousness, and then
to derive from the relations between experience and consequent needs the
subsequent activities of those whose subjective identities you’re
investigating. In your paper the subject of consciousness is the
productive process, the needs that arise from these are labour, instruments
of production and subjects of production, and the active results are the
production and reproduction of the productive process, including that of
labour, the instruments of production and so on. Determination of how the
experience of socialized production changes the worker’s subjective
identity would involve locating the contradictions that arise between the
diverse experience-derived needs and between subjective consciousness and
the activities produced by the interaction between experiences and
needs. Steve’s comments on his personal experiences as well as the
recorded interviews cited in your paper provide excellent material for
identifying these contradictions and researching their resolution.



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