Work, Power and the Labour Process                                                                                      29 September 2003




In the introductory lecture last week we discussed the three quite distinct concepts, related to sets of practices: Industrial Democracy, Workers Participation, Employee Involvement.  Examined differences in terms of the degree, depth, scope and purposes of these forms of participatory activity.  One crucial question was the extent to which workers/employees exercise genuine participation, that is to say real influence over the decision making processes in organisations.


A brief recapitulation on Industrial Democracy.  ID has been associated with the radical tradition, demands that have arisen from the trade union and workers’ movement for more extensive and deeper forms of employee control, implying a transformation in control and ownership of industry. Despite the implementation of weaker forms of ID, bordering on workers’ participation, like Worker Directors, and despite the experiences of Workers’ Cooperatives, Industrial Democracy, at least in its fuller, radical version has remained largely at the level of an aspiration.  Objectives not realised. Industrial Democracy, therefore, raises questions about power relationships at work.  From what sources do these demands for worker control arise?  What is it about the nature of work in a capitalist, market economy that generates these demands for greater control?



1)      Alienation

2)      The Labour Process (Harry Braverman – Labour and Monopoly Capital, 1974) and Taylorism

3)      The Critique of Braverman

4)      Contemporary Examples of Taylorism




Start with a discussion of the extent to which work produces conditions of alienation for employees.  What is meant by the term alienation?  Alienation is a widely used term, and one that is common in everyday language.  Very flexible term, often used imprecisely to mean no more than ‘pissed off’.  However, we have to go beyond common sense usage to an understanding of the term as it is used in the social sciences.  In terms of industrial sociology there are two main, contending perspectives.


Marx on Alienation

In Marx’s writings ‘alienation’ is a product of the capitalist labour process and can not be separated from the way in which work is performed.  It is an unavoidable OBJECTIVE condition in which all workers find themselves (see Noon and Blyton, 141 for summary).  Fundamentally, when workers sell their own labour power to employers, they surrender the right to control their own labour.  Once they sell their labour power, they cease to decide how, when and in and in what ways work is to take place.  These decisions have become the sole prerogative of the employers.  Marx argues that it is this process of subordination of employees to employers or their agents (managers) which makes work, in essence, a degrading and dehumanising experience. 


Alienation in two senses.  (a) Time and again in Capital, Marx describes the social relations of alienated work and their destructive effects on the worker.  : ‘[Under capitalism] all the means for developing production are transformed into means of domination over and exploitation of the producer; that they mutilate the worker into a fragment of a human being, degrade him to become a mere appurtenance, make his work such a torment that its essential meaning is destroyed’.  As Noon and Blyton comment, for Marx, rather than representing a source of satisfaction in its own right, work under capitalism acts merely as a means of getting money to satisfy needs outside of working hours.  Work to live, not live to work.  At work, workers are undertaking activities because they are instructed to.  They are told how to perform.  In this process they are separated from their true selves and experience a sense of alienation.  In the final analysis, this loss of self stems from the fact that the worker’s labour belongs not to him or herself.  Alienation is a loss of self in the process of productive activity. (b)  The second sense in which alienation exists relates to the output, the product or the object of labour, which is not owned by the employee.  The product or the object of labour is owned by the employer.  This is highly significant for employees see the product of their labour as something distinct and separated from themselves.  They become estranged from the products of their own labour – in other words, these products become ALIEN objects.


Marx argues that alienation has profound consequences for humanity.  It is through work that people express creativity, produce the means of their own existence and become themselves.  This creative process is one of the two central purposes of life – production and reproduction – yet under capitalism work becomes not a form of creative freedom but a form of compulsion.  The result is estrangement and alienation.  For Marx, this condition of alienation is an objective state, under which all employees suffered.  In a sense it matters little whether people feel or say they are alienated since the assumption is that the structures of capitalism determine the objective state of alienation. 


Alienation as a Subjective Experience


Robert Blauner’s book, Alienation and Freedom, 1964.  Blauner’s argument is that alienation is not solely an objective state and that work has different meanings for different people.  His perspective was sociological, or ‘social psychological’.  Began from the proposition that ‘alienation is a general syndrome made up of a number of different objective conditions and subjective feeling states (p.15).’  ‘…alienation is viewed as a quality of personal experience which results from specific kinds of social arrangments’. 


‘Alienation exists where workers are unable to control their immediate work processes, to develop a sense of purpose and function which connects their jobs to the over-all organisation or production…and when they fail to become involved in the activity of work as a mode of personal self-expression (p.15).’


The different objective conditions and subjective feeling states emerge from certain relationships between workers and the socio-technical settings of employment.  For Blauner  alienation is multi-dimensional and can be broken down into four dimensions : powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation, self-estrangement.  Different employees will be affected differently by these dimensions and will therefore have different alienation profiles, they will experience alienation differently.  But Blauner was less concerned with looking at the differences between individuals than the differences that existed between entire occupational groups. 


He studies 4 different work settings : print shop, textile mill, automobile plant, chemical manufacturing (continuous process).  Concluding on the pluralistic quality of American industrial life affecting the worker,

‘His industry even affects the kind of social personality he develops, since an industrial environment tends to breed a distinctive social type.’


So although Blauner emphasises subjectivity and is criticising Marx for an obejctive account of alienation, he ended up, like Marx, in focusing on OBJECTIVE conditions which produced alienation.  Rather than generalise about the capitalist system as the producer of alienation, he sought to differentiate between capitalist enterprises on the basis of the technology used.  The main criticism that can be levelled at Blauner is that of technological determinism; a given level of technological development will produce a certain level of alienation.  In Blauner’s perspective greater automation would free workers from the drudgery of the assembly line and this would decrease alienation.  An over-optimistic perspective.


It is argued that Blauner’s major contribution is to make alienation a variable concept.  Certain objective conditions can lead to feelings of non-alienation and conversely, non-alienation conditions can still lead to feelings of alienation.  Blauner allows for a range of feelings and differences of experience even though work conditions may be shared. 


Whatever version of alienation one accepts, and it is not impossible to synthesise Marx and Blauner, the focus on alienation raises the question of control, or lack of it.  In circumstances of active human agency it is not difficult to see the root source of some of the demands for industrial democracy – greater control over work, quality of working life (QWL) etc. 




Starting point, Harry Braverman – Labour and Monopoly Capital (1974).  This book with its subtitle ‘The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century’ has had an immense impact, stimulating a debate which shows no sign of abating.  See for example Smith and Thompson (1998) in reading list.  And International studies of Management and Organization Winter 2000-2001/ Vol: 30, No:4.  As we shall see Braverman’s work has been criticised from a number of standpoints, but remains a truly important work. 


B. wrote the book out of an initial interest in the way occupational shifts were taking place in the US in the 1970s – in particular the growth in numbers of white-colllar workers and workers in the service industries.  He became aware of a contradiction.  On the one hand, widespread claims were being made that modern work was, because of the scientific-technical revolution and ‘automation’, demanding higher levels of education, training and intelligence, yet, on the other hand, there was considerable evidence of growing dissatisfaction with work, both in the factory (long acknowledged) and in the office. 


His argument – work has become increasingly subdivided into petty operations that fail to sustain the interest or engage the capacities of humans.  These petty operations actually demand even less skill and training ‘and that the modern trend of work by its ‘mindlessness’ and ‘bureaucratisation’ is ‘alienating’ ever large sections of the working population’ (p.4)  B’s perspective avowedly Marxist.  The drive to accumulate capital transforms the way in which work has been organised.


Braverman’s Thesis.  With the development of capitalist production, workers are separated from the means of production.  They only get access to the means of production through selling their labour power.  What the worker sells and what the capitalist buys is not an agreed amount of labour, but the power to labour over a period of time.  Relationships at work are fundamentally unequal.  Having been forced to sell their labour power to the employer the workers also surrender their interest in the labour process.  And for the employer the central task becomes one where he has to take control of the labour process.  Control becomes the central concept of all management systems.


The all-round skills of the craftsman are broken down into individual component parts.  Adam Smith and pin manufacture.  Cheaper and more efficient.  Conception and execution are separated.  The key changes are brought about by the purposive and systematic application of ‘science’ to production.  Much of B’s book is concerned with a discussion of F.W. Taylor and the Scientific Management Movement.  There was one best way of doing things, and even the most complex of tasks could and should be broken down into their most simple component parts.  Work should be measured, observed, timed to fractions of a second if necessary, and each stage of the work should be precisely controlled by management.  Taylor’s experiments.  Schmidt – the example of. 


Taylor’s Principles

First Principle – Managers must assume the task of gathering together all the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by workmen, take that knowledge and reduce it to formulae, rules, laws.   THE DISSOCIATION OF THE LABOUR PROCESS FROM THE SKILLS OF THE WORKERS.


Second Principle – All possible brain work should be removed from the shop and centred in the planning or laying-out departments.  THE SEPARATION OF CONCEPTION FROM EXECUTION.


Third Principle – The use of this MONOPOLY OVER KNOWLEDGE TO CONTROL EACH STEP OF THE LABOUR PROCESS AND ITS MODE OF EXECUTION. CONSEQUENCE – THE CREATION OF THE MODERN OFFICE as knowledge is centred there.  But in the office the same process takes place as took place on the shop floor.  From the early clerks to the subdivision of tasks and the fragementation and routinisation of office work.  (see, for example, Cooper, C. and Taylor, P. (2000) ‘From Taylorism to Mrs Taylor : the transformation of the accounting craft’ in Accounting, Organizations and Society 25, 555-578)


The debate on B. has frequently focused on B.’s proposition that a process of deskilling has taken place, both organisationally and technologically.  Automation and the introduction of new technology has increased the level of deskilling.  B. focuses on the operation of machines by Numerical Control, where planning and programming of machines was undertaken away from the shopfloor by technical staff.  Machines pre-programmed, the pace of the machine dictated from a distance. 




Often the debate has focused, not wholly correctly, on deskilling.  For purposes of simplicity, summarise the 6 types of criticism that have been levelled at Braverman, as categorised by Noon and Blyton. 


1)      The deskilling thesis ignores alternative management strategies.  Andrew Friedman in two books has argued that there is no single trend to deskilling.  Managers pursue strategies that leave some discretion in the hands of the employees.  A strategy of ‘responsible autonomy’ rather than ‘direct control’ e.g.. job enrichment, quality circles, empowerment.  Wider choice in the mechanisms employed by managers for the accumulation of capital.


2)       Deskilling thesis overstates management’s objective of controlling labour.  The control of labour and labour process, not an end in itself, but a means to achieve profit.  Also, the assumption that labour issues, rather than product development, marketing, investment are the central concerns of management is highly questionable.


3)      Deskilling thesis treats labour as passive.  Resistance, subjectivity, influence of the post-modernists.


4)      Underestimates the degree of consent and accommodation by employees.  The work of Burawoy stands as an important corrective.  He looks at why workforces consent to their own subordination.  ‘Making Out’,  CONTROL and CONSENT.  Contradiction in the management of the labour process.  Richard Hyman – Strategy or Structure?  Work, Employment and Society 1.1.    Management have two competing pressures.  On the one hand to control and direct employees, on the other to enlist the skills and cooperation of these workers in making these targets.  Harness and control too much and stop creativity.  Supervision X discretion. 


5)      B. ignores gender dimensions.


6)      Deskilling may be compensated for by enskilling


4)  Contemporary Examples


Depite changes, the prevalence of forms of Taylorism.

Ritzer, the McDonaldization of Society.

Chickens – disassembly line

Call centres – an assembly line in the head

Checkout operators

Widespread and enduring significance of Taylorism in the way work is organised.


PT  24 September 2003