This paper will present a brief summary and discussion of Harry Braverman’s, Labor and Monopoly Capital, The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. Braverman presents an argument against what he calls the degradation of work and the de-skilling of the labor force. Additionally, he argues that this de-skilling is a result of the inhuman aspects of capitalism. His work mirrors the writings of Karl Marx and thus Braverman references Karl Marx often throughout this book.
The essential points argued in this book are that the capitalist form of economy and by its nature, establishes divisions in labor, degrades the labor force and in turn creates a decline in general skill levels and intellectual worker input into their individual work product. Even technology, according to Braverman is driven more by the capitalist machinery and not for the well being of mankind. Braverman presents his argument by first classifying a major portion of the labor force as a proletariat, and then he establishes how the labor force has been deskilled. He argues that the “artisan” of the working world, the craft worker, is nearly extinct as a result of the capitalist labor process dividing mental from manual labor, so that workers no longer imaginatively, fabricate the products of their labor. Braverman claims that capitalism has caused the degradation of work by taking away this craftsmanship, by dividing craftsmanship down to a science and away from an art. This is alleged to be a result of efforts such as Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Scientific Management.
Taylorism, the organized study of work, breaks work down into its’ simplest tasks and endeavors to improve each part to its peak output. Braverman’s description of Taylor’s system can be summarized in three principles: first is that traditional knowledge is gathered into the hands of management, second is that the planning of the task is separated from its execution so that management decides what needs to be done and the workers follow those instructions of orders, and lastly, management must hold a monopoly over knowledge to control each step of the labor process. It is proposed that this methodology created the dissociation of the labor process from the skills of the worker. As a result of work dissatisfaction, productivity was low as measured by the increase of absenteeism, turnover rates, wildcat strikes, sabotage, poor-quality products, and a reluctance by workers to commit themselves to their work tasks noted in the past several decades following the 1930s (31).
“Labor and capital are the opposite poles of capitalist society (377).” According to both Marx and Braverman, antagonism is manifested and perpetuated between labor and capitalism as integral to their relationship. Braverman’s states that, “Management is habituated to carry on labor processes in a setting of social antagonism and, in fact, has never known it to be otherwise. For corporate management, this is a problem of costs and controls, not in the ‘humanization of work.” As long as labor tries to attain higher pay and benefits or improvements in the work environment, while, at the same time, management continues to reduce production costs, the distance between the goals and desires of the two parties will be ever increased.
Another of Braverman’s clear messages is that capitalism drives technology. “As craftsmanship is destroyed or increasingly emptied of its traditional content, the remaining ties, already tenuous and weakened, between the working population and science are more or less completely broken (131).” According to Braverman, science and technology have changed from a “relatively free floating social endeavor” to a tool of capitalism (156). In comparing the differences of influence in Copernicus and Da Vinci, versus Ford and Edison, I would have to agree. However, during the previous centuries, science was much feared and ridiculed. Now science and scientists are revered and admired.
Braverman singles out what he calls the 15%-20% of the total work force that doesn’t strictly fit his model. The portion of employment called the “new working class” that includes: engineers, technical types, scientist, and lower supervisors and lower management, and other specialists or professionals to include marketing, finance, administrators, and workers in the hospital, school, and government businesses (403-4). He prefers to consider these agents of the capitalist because he believes that their usual position is over and above the labor (404-6). When Braverman refers to “working class” in his book, he focuses on what he calls the “old working class” or general laborers that do not include those I just named. This is a matter of convenience for his argument and creates a position for valid debate in his work. Braverman was willing to accept technology and its impact on labor and capitalism; yet, he does not accept the evolution of the labor classes and working class that parallel capitalism’s evolution and created other careers in the labor market.
Most of the public and the education world believe that today “conditions of industrial and office work require an increasingly ‘better-trained, better educated, and thus upgraded’ working population. Braverman agrees that it is true that technology and the science skills have increased, he believes that this only reflects increases in the gap or “polarization” between the lower end of the labor scale and the higher end. I agree in general with this argument, however, education has and is still being used as a discriminator for hiring. And, in the cases of those workers that Braverman does not like to consider as the working class, education at the highest level possible is an absolute must. Braverman admits that these “professionals” were members of the “old working class” as craft-workers prior to the job shifts and cultural changes enforced by capitalism, so he should not count them out in the argument as to whether or not education and knowledge levels have increased in a capitalist society.
Marx and Braverman bring to the forefront some of the dangers that can befall a capitalist society and especially in the area of employee management and job satisfaction. Capitalist treat labor as they do other raw product resources; this is Braverman’s position and is probably true for the most part. Labor is a resource; this is why we have a field of study and management specialist in human resources training, development, and management. However, Braverman argues that the efforts from these fields are simply pretenses at improving labor’s job quality situation. Hesees the efforts of management to improve or enlarge jobs as simply “efforts to reduce costs and improve profits” (37-8). In spite of the truth in that statement, resources still have to be managed and improved upon if possible. That is why there exist today programs and efforts to improve the quality of life and work for the entire labor pool and for management as well; such as, labor relation efforts, employee assistance programs, conflict resolution training for managers and supervisors, quality management programs, and many others. Considerations are being made today to incorporate changes in assembly line type-working environments in order to reduce the monotony of the repetitiveness. In today’s working world it seems to be a truer fear that in many jobs the labor pool may not be keeping up with technology at an acceptable rate to meet the job market needs. Information technology is the main effort and challenge today; many of these skills are relatively new to some of the older members of the labor force. This drastic shift in technology can cause increases in unemployment or the push of the labor pool towards lesser paying jobs.
This book was published following a decade of what Braverman refers to as a period of dissatisfaction with work (31). During the time period that he researched and wrote this book, it was a time when many dissatisfied voices were heard in this country. As he himself states, the “radicalism of the 1960s” was “animated” by the discontent with the capitalism in its success (14). He is always negative towards management and capitalism as if it they are an evil in the world. He further portrays management as having no concern with the work force as people, as unfeeling and failing to recognize the humanity in humans, as if management and capitalists were something other than human. Braverman takes the staunch position that the discontent of workers in the 1960s lends credence to Marx’s view the greater accumulation of capital and wealth is directly proportionate to the increase of misery and unemployment (389).
Braverman, Harry. LABOR AND MONOPOLY CAPITAL: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York: Monthly Review Press 1974 14, 31, 37-8, 131, 156, 377, 389, 403-6