Re: re comments on my Rethinking labor process theory

From: Helena Worthen (
Date: Tue Feb 03 2004 - 08:09:52 PST

Hello, all --

I have been lurking on xmca the past year, trying to take care of
business here in Chicgo vis a vis labor education, still stumbling
between the various pillars of thinking that give me some sense of
direction --

I'll have to speak very summarily here: When I talk about AT
(Actitivity theory) with labor educators, many of whom come out of
sociology or political science or institutional economics (industrial
relations, industrial engineering, etc) they sometimes say, "Sounds like
labor process theory." Paul's article gave me a chance to see how one
could differentiate. As always, the distinction is drawn for a purpose.
In this case, it's the purpose of education -- the job labor educators
are trying to do is to educate, to change consciousness. Paul's argument
that a way to re-think the Marxist prediction that the forces of
production under capitalism will necessarily fragment and degrade the
skills of the workforce (emphasis on necessarily) is to look at how in
fact knowledge (and skills) have been socialized, illustrating this by
showing how workers, the tools, the community and the work itself (the
object) have become socialized. His three examples are convincing to me
-- Taylor's work, the stuff at NUMMI (which was very problematic), and
third, this big software project. I find myself, for the most part,
nodding in agreement.

But for my uses, I need a little more. As I understand it, labor process
theory evolved as way to apply Marxism to changes in work; AT evolved
out of Marxism to reveal, analyze and create changes in consciousness.
So side-by-side with Paul's model, I'd want to put the AT model, which
adds the two points along the bottom of the triangle (to the left,
rules/norms/customs, acknowledging that all activity takes place in a
rule-bound system; to the right, division of labor, which lets us think
about how some individuals -- workers, in Paul's model -- are
selected/chosen/elected/condemned/subordinated from the community to
carry out a certain activity). And the reminder that everyone of the
elements of the model has a history and exists as a social construct,
not as a fact of nature; that each instatiation of the model exists in
tension with or in cahoots with other instantiations; and that what
makes the models live is the inner contraditions, the problems. I think
that we have to keep all these dimensions in mind in order to engage
with workers in an educational process.

The purpose of this comment is to link Paul's model that helps us
understand the workplace through Marxist lens with a model that helps us
think about how to teach and work with workers in those workplaces.

Thanks, all -- I'll try to keep up better in the future.

Helena Worthen
Chicago Labor Education Program
Universiy of Illinois Institute for Labor and Industrial Relations

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