1. The Landscape of Labor
This section began with an analysis of how the COVID-19 healthcare crisis was impacting workers. It has since developed into a study of the labor process under contemporary capitalism within and beyond crisis. I trace developments leading up to today’s working life with a focus on new working conditions and jobs. I also draw examples from both the history and contemporary moment of labor struggles, including the current healthcare crisis, economic crisis, and ongoing fight for social justice.
We spend more time working than just about anything else we do. And yet, there is a problem between our labor and the capital that employs it. They are at extreme odds. Capital’s priority is to control work to create the largest surplus and profit possible for the capitalist, not the worker.
This relentless pursuit of wealth is accumulated into the hands of a small number of owners. This is a law of capitalism. The surplus is not equally distributed amongst workers who create it. This workplace antagonism of the capitalist mode of production has radically reshaped the nature of the work and defined working-class struggle since the mid-19th century.
Workers striking outside New York City Hall before a hearing about Amazon HQ2, January 30th, 2019. Photo: Brett Wallace
As Chris Harman noted, “In modern capitalist society the boss does not physically own the worker nor is he entitled to physically punish a worker who refuses to do unpaid work for him. But the boss does own the factories where the worker has to get a job if he or she wants to keep alive. So it is fairly easy for him to force the worker to put up with a wage which is much less than the value of the goods the worker makes in the factory1 This, in essence, is the capitalist mode of production.
The capitalist mode of production, as it was noted by Marx, is the systematized organization of production and distributed to maximize and profit. This mode is relentlessly focused on wealth accumulation for the owners of the production process. It is a mode with an underlying authoritarian tone. Anyone who has ever held a job in a capitalist enterprise knows well that the production process and the pace of work were not decided democratically.
The characteristics of the capitalist mode of production process are quite common across most jobs and industries. Capitalism, in a series of steps, deconstructs jobs into small tasks. Thinking and planning in a job become broken off from making and executing. Workers are organized and subordinated to a specific point in production process where they have specific small tasks. Workers are measured on the speed and other production metrics to complete such tasks. This form of work degrades the skilled worker by removing the intellectual thought and autonomy over work from the job. The worker is told what to do, how to do it, and at what pace. This is well-documented in an Amazon fulfillment center where workers have quotas to picks items off warehouse shelves based on quotas. It is also common in any quota carrying role, such as the millions of sales employees selling financial services, technology, or consulting.
Before long, the breakdown work into small tasks becomes mechanized. A classic example is Henry Ford’s first end to end conveyer belt assembly line launched in 1914 in Detroit, which we will go into later on. In 1903, Ford’s auto workers were broad mechanics, able to work on many parts of a car. By 1914, workers were fixated to specific stations on the production line. Their pace was controlled by management by the speed of the line. Management had completely taken over the organization of work in the Ford factory.
Auto workers on the assembly line. Photo: Ford Corporation.
Over time, this level of managerial control and mechanization requires less workers because the intensity of the work increases. In addition, if productivity rises in other ways, fewer workers will be needed. For those workers, their previous differentiated skillset now requires less training, pre-requisites, and their jobs are filled by less experiences operators. For the skilled worker who is able to think and make, whose working life continues to become controlled and deskilled, the boredom of repeating the same tasks becomes maddening. The skillset of their job continues to shrink so that less skills, entry level workers could take on more of it. Only a small proportion of workers move up into management or planning roles. For the less skilled worker who enters the job that is already mechanized, their opportunity for learning and growth is far overshadowed by a system of hyper control and repetition. It is no wonder that significant numbers of American workers are dissatisfied with their working lives, whether they work in a warehouse, office job, etc.
Before the Industrial Revolution, the handicraft trades practiced in small workshops and guilds, which pre-dated the Industrial Revolution, could not have executed a systematic deskilling of this magnitude.
From the Industrial Revolution onward, work has been on a trajectory towards such indignity. The worker’s knowledge of the complete production process has been eroded. Work skills have been on a path to be broken down, organized into tasks, and mechanized. This systematic deskilling into discrete tasks reduces the value of labor power. Workers are replaceable by the large reserve of unemployed workers ready to fill an open job.
The mode of capitalist production we know today first arose in the early 20th century with the emergence of huge monopolies – think Ford, Sears and Roebuck, etc.
In parallel with the rise of these large corporations, was the emergence of Taylorism, developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylorism was characterized by a series of scientific management techniques focused on the organization of work. Taylorism broke the production process down into units that could be calculated. This scientific organization of work staged the alienation of workers from their work that we see in working life today.
Henry Ford adopted Taylor’s techniques, which led him to develop the assembly line. When Ford first launched the Model T assembly in 1914, it was not necessarily a pioneering technological achievement that reshaped the labor process. Rather, it was the ability for Ford’s management team to control the pace of work. Technology in the assembly line was the not cause of deskilling or indignity, but how it is subordinated to control the pace of Ford’s workers. This principle remains true in today’s digital-era2
Throughout the 20th century, as labor fought back against the control of the labor process, there were key wins and setbacks.
One pivotal turning point against labor came in the 1970’s when business leaders unified against the labor movement.
Picketing ILGWU members outside Macy’s department store urge shoppers not to buy Judy Bond blouses. Circa 1965. Courtesy Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives, Cornell University.
During the late 1960s and into the 1970s, a series of postwar political changes, including environmental regulations, consumer protections, and economic volatility, pummeled the American business community. These changes were taken as direct attacks on corporations by the American business community.
In response, Virginia Lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell penned a now-infamous memo to a friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr., the Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Powell’s memo called for business leaders to rise and counterattack the rise of anti-corporate sentiment. Powell, who sat on 11 management boards, doubled down on the capitalism as we know it and activated the playbook, which we have been living with since the 1970s, for free enterprise and corporate domination.
Powell wrote: “The day is long past when the chief executive officer of a major corporation discharges his responsibility by maintaining a satisfactory growth of profits, with due regard to the corporation’s public and social responsibilities. If our system is to survive, top management must be equally concerned with protecting and preserving the system itself. This involves far more than an increased emphasis on “public relations” or “governmental affairs” — two areas in which corporations long have invested substantial sums3
The indignity of the worker continued into the 1970’s with the rise of new technologies and labor processes, such as outsourcing. It also continued in the 1980’s and 90’s through the development of new post-Fordist business models, such lean production.
Still from the essay film The Forgotten Space, by Allan Sekula and Noël Burch. Courtesy of Icarus Films.
Capital’s apologists obfuscate what’s happening with their aim to preserve capitalism. They deny the indignity of working lives, while preaching the virtues and ignoring the market crashes of capitalism. For example, companies like Uber spread the narrative of the freedom and flexibility of gig work, while covering up the unfair contracts, low wages, and lack of benefits their workers face. They even go further by lobbying against classifying Uber drivers as employees. The indignity of work extends to independent contractors, such as these drivers.
Here is a short video I made in 2019 based on the Uber strikes that were happening in cities such as New York City, San Francisco, and London.
Whether Uber drivers, warehouse workers, truckers, or software engineers, workers have little to no choice, but to participate in the capitalist mode of production. They need to eat and have a roof over their heads. To this end, the capitalist will usually say, “well if it’s so bad at this company, workers can go work somewhere else.” The reality that these owners ignore is that capital has transformed all of society and all forms of labor into the sale and purchase of wage labor. There is no American industry at scale that operates autonomously outside the boundaries of capitalism.
Many capitalists will often talk about the “war for talent” and how they must attract the best candidates or they will lose. In reality, that is partially true. The capitalist seeks to attract the most productive talent, but also talent who seamlessly operates under the capitalist mode of production and for the lowest wage. This is the strategy for talent under capitalism, which I’ll discuss more later.
Leading management consultants, such as McKinsey and EY, provide strategy consulting and advisory services to enterprises. In reading their literature, it is quite clear that they seek to find new ways to accelerate the capitalist mode of production. This is, in fact, how they are able to charge companies so much for their services. Under the banners of “future of work” or “digitization”, what lurks beneath the surface is that these consulting companies help companies relentlessly pursue the capitalist mode of production – more efficiencies, lower labor costs, and extracting more value to make profits.
2. Art worlds
- Harman, Chris. How Marxism Works, Bookmarks Publications, London, May 1979.
- My critique is focused not on technology itself, but on how modern technology and managerial techniques are applied to control and dominate working lives, creating less equality and dignity for workers.
- Powell, Jr, Lewis F. “Attack On American Free Enterprise System.” August, 23, 1971.