Braverman Labor and Monopoly Capital: Final 5 Chapters.

Alas for us, Braverman’s book is not one of those cheerful books which finishes with a section on how “there’s hope!” to turn around what we’ve been discussing.  (Here – the fragmentation and alienation of modern society via capitalism and jobs).

No, his final five chapters deal more fully with what we call “the middle class” or the “working class” and their role in society and the increasingly dull and meaningless jobs they have to look forward to performing.

Braverman deals more fully with the issue of skill in these jobs.  Though there used to be some, there is little anymore.  “Unskilled” work is that which can be done with no training, however it turns out that “Semi-Skilled” merely means training is done which can be completed within 2 – 12 weeks.  Peak work efficiency is often reached within 3-6 months after being hired.

And though there used to be some status bump with having office work, increasingly office and clerical work is rote having the mental feel of factory work, being chained to a desk, submitted to efficiency trainings, and made to perform at the same sorts of paces as those in the factory with few breaks and even fewer perks.

Though jobs are being created all the time through the universal marketplace phenomenon, and “work” which simply used to something one did (ie: making bed) is increasingly a paid activitiy unfortunately unemployment is rising all the time, particularly if you factor in – those who are in school, those who are not seeking work because they have given up looking, and those who work but are not paid a living wage.

(Again, you can read all these things on the front page of nearly every newspaper in the nation.  Not much seems to have changed since 1974.  Abysmality is the order of the day.)

In fact, Braverman appears to arrive at few sweeping conclusions in his book, the introduction serving as his sole attempts at synthesizing everything, and a few final paragraphs, such as this one,

The worker can regain mastery over collective and socialized production only by assuming the scientific, design and operational prerogatives of modern engineering; short of this there is no mastery over the labor process.

And this mastery must be a conjunction of education and work, it cannot be as it is now, all study and no work, or the way it is for laborer – all work and no study.  It must be both conjoined.

The (Dismal) End.

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Braverman Part 3: Monopoly Capital – The Central Part of the Book (literally and figuratively)

Despite the title of this section most of the writing is centered around the effects on society of capitalist influence on their created markets.  Capitalism, by it’s definition being about production and surplus has been able to steadily increase as capitalists have banded together pooling their resources to create every larger corporations and ventures.

This ability to expand has created new markets in the same way that Columbus “discovered” America.  As my favorite quote from the book loosely goes  – beds were being made long before anyone was hired to do this.

Frankly, this is one of my favorite ideas and images that I gleaned from the book and I expect to stick with me.

(Sure, he goes on in earlier or later chapters about 1) skills being stolen from workers by mechanization, 2) how machines aren’t in control, the capitalist is in control, 3) how the middle class is in just as poor a position as the working class, though they may be “unproductive” laborers which used to be a privilege, 4) Education is just as much a capitalist treadmill as any job these days 5) Taylorization and the evolution of “man” as a “machine” is very degrading 6) The role of the state in all these processes etc…

…But really, Chapter 13 –  The Universal Market should be photocopied and handed out to high schoolers in their history classes when they are learning about some of the things that capitalism has done that are structurally important to our society rather than merely materialistically. I think it’s meant to be the crux of his manifesto against capitalism, as it is his most impassioned rhetoric. At least he opens with this:

 It is only in its era of monopoly that the capitalist mode of production takes over the totality of individual, family, and social needs, and in subordination them to the market, also reshapes them to serve the needs of capital… how capitalism transformed all of society into a gigantic marketplace is a process that has been little investigated, although it is one of the keys to all recent social history.

And from this platform he goes on, mind you, in 1974 to decry many things that could still be headlines in 2012.    How people are divorced from the production and making of food in their own homes (see here), How people are de-skilled and can purchase everything on the market, which leads to the frenetic need to work to pay for all this (another book written on this), How community ties have broken down because we can buy everything, how friendships are reinterpreted to include only the pleasant tasks, and require little sacrifice or true help.  (Moving parties might be the last vestiges of this).

Sad.  Read it and Weep.

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Braverman Part Deux: Science and Mechanization

Braverman gives a brief (less than 100 pages) history of science as it makes its way into the workplace.  The actual science, developed in laboratories funded by workplaces is started in Germany, who actively hired and supported scientists looking for solutions to problems which didn’t even exist yet.  The US takes their cue from German, but not immediately, only into the twentieth century do they really begin funding the company scientist; for example at GE.

Mechanization is added to the workplace in the wake of Taylor with the Gilbreths (of Cheaper by the Dozen fame; no, really). They break down the typical motions that workers go through each day, like bending or cutting, and develop ways to reduce the motions or time spent on each of these actions, thus making for a faster moving workp(l)ace.  From these ‘improvements’ managers are able to control the pace of work and to insist on faster work.

Technology begins to develop and enter the workplace in the form of machines that perform repetitive duties (cutting, lathing, sanding), but also require their laborers to perform repetitive duties maintaining them.  All this adds up to brainless machines, and brainless workers performing the same motions day in and day out.

Braverman analyzes that the skills required for these jobs are taken away from workers and placed first in the machines, but mostly in the engineers who design the machines, who constitute about 3 percent of the workforce at that time.  Everyone else is reduced to rote and skill-less tasks.

His analysis is elegant, and simultaneously engaging and depressing.

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A Depressing Quote from the Final Chapter of Labor and Monopoly Capital

I’ll soon enough summarize the other four sections of Braverman’s opus so I can permanently remember this dismal dismantling of my American pride; but his concluding chapter on skill really hit me hard with it’s punch to the education system.

We cannot neglect the direct economic impact of the enlarged school system.  Not only does the postponement of the school-leaving age limit the growth of recognized unemployment, but it also furnishes employment for a considerable mass of teachers, administrators, construction and service workers etc.  Moreover, education has become an immensely profitable area of capital accumulation for the construction industry, for suppliers of all sorts, and for a host of subsidiary enterprises.  For all these reason – which have nothing to do with either education or occupational training – it is difficult to imagine the United States society without its immense “educational” structure, and in fact, as has been seen in recent years the closing of even a single segment of the schools for a period of weeks is enough to create a social crisis in the city in which this happens.  The school, as caretakers of children and young people, are indispensable for family functioning, community stability, and social order in general (although they fulfill even these functions badly).  In a word, there is no longer any place for the young in this society other than school.

Take that and chew on it.

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Labor and Monopoly Capital by Harry Braverman

Part 1 – Labor and Management (Chapters 1-6): A Synopsis.

What is labor?  Well, for men and women Braverman discerns that it is purposeful and conscious, rather than instinctual, as it is for animals.  It involves the manipulation of tools and one’s hand and one’s mind.

The way that Capitalist production uses labor is to re-purpose it’s power through three conditions. The first is that workers are separated from the means of production.  You’ve probably heard that before if you know any Marx). The second is that they are freed from legal constraints such as serfdom or slavery.  You may remember that Simmel mentions this as one of the pre-cursors to generalized money use, the fact that man does not owe all his labor to an “owner.” The third is that the worker is employed to expand the capital of the employer, this begins with a contracts or agreement.  This agreement is not an agreed upon amount of labor, but the power to labor over an agreed period of time.  (Braverman italicizes this)

Men and women are hired in droves by these contracts in order to perform their labor.  As soon as they were all collected the need for management arose to keep them on task and cut down on coffee breaks (sad, but true.  Man being no longer at a pace he saw fit).

From this point, Braverman stresses that the arising division of labor “is the fundamental principle of industrial organization.” In pre-industrial times there was no subdision of labor, goods and services were performed start to finish (ie: pot production.  Only some larger constructions such as houses or canoes would be divided)

The division of labor in this manner allows the cost of labor to be subdivided as well, and halved or more. Braverman quotes from Charles Babbage who studied this phenomenon in 1832.

Once the workers are neatly performing their tasks, there is then the necessity of getting them to perform the neat tasks faster, at least in the eyes of management.  This is one of the fundamental conflicts between workers and management.  Enter Frederick Taylor, whose concepts of time-sayving are famously parodied by Charlie Chaplin in the movie Modern Times.

Braverman seems to admire Taylor, not so much for what he actually brought about, but for his ingenuity in proposing and systematizing work, especially machinist’s work. “He tackled his own trade with a boldness and energy which astonished his contemporaries and set the pattern… from that day on.”

Taylor pulled out of his study several principles of labor and management which Braverman elucidates.  First, all knowledge of the work and how it should be done should be gathered into the brains of management. Whether from their own experience, or observation.  This is the dissociation of the labor process from the skills of the workers.  Next, all thinking should then be concentrated in the management, and divorced from the work of the laborers.  Since this is Braverman’s fundamental definition of labor in man, he concludes that it reduces workers to animals.  This is the separation of conception from execution. Finally the third principle rests on the fact that the management now knows more than the worker and can plan out the minutiae of the day.  Thus the management has a monopoly over the process and it’s mode of execution.

(Can I interject right now that really this sounds quite awful.  Like a terrible science experiment gone wrong.  And actually, Braverman goes on in chapter 5 to really drill home this point, the results of this science experiment are that creativity and workmanship are destroyed.)

As a result of all this progress, workers were completely habituated to the capitalist mode of production which has them as cogs in machine, albeit occasionally ruled by a benevolent monarch.  These workers performed their tasks, and their suitability to such tasks can’t really be measured by tests or predicted by such.  (A view that most folk don’t really take to nowadays either, based on the proliferation of career aptitude tests still existing)

Bam.  This section was informative, and depressing to me, although the broad picture I already knew (the degrading of whole skills into individual skills)  I am looking forward to seeing where Braverman thinks the workplace goes from here given this dismal picture up until that point.

*One of the things that impressed me as I read the introduction to this work, is that Harry Braverman is self taught.  His first vocation was as a coppersmith, he later (due to the decline of his occupation) worked in offices and as an activist in the socialist movement and in editing/publishing.  His work on this book began out of his frustration for the way “the worker is systematically robbed of a craft heritage, is given little or nothing to take its place.”  He then began his search for answers in reading formal and informal literature.  The book is concerned “entirely with the development of the processes of production, and of labor processes in general in CAPITALIST societies.” (Emphasis his.)

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Where Your Money Goes

Of course we all know that there is no “average person.”  But I love the type of graph put together by Time Magazine for their October 10th Special Money Issue.

I also love that for all the complaints constantly made about paying for children for those who have none, etc.  The average person pays more for funeral costs each month than for childcare. Representative of our shifting age demographics?  Maybe.

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Contemporary vs. Classic books

My hiatus from the classic works of sociology has been longer than I anticipated.  Since putting down GH Mead and picking up Jane Jacobs it’s been almost two months.  Sometimes, contemporary work appears so much more relevant and emotional than the classic theory of the past.  It’s also easier to read and often the author dictates exactly what to make of his or her work.

Here is a small example of some of my reading of the last month.


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