Capitalism has taken its hits in recent years and not without cause. A while back I read Harry Braverman’s thought-provoking and thorough work about labor and capitalism. As I mention in the essay below, it should be required reading for all capitalist. Though his analysis of labor cannot really be argued with, I found myself questioning some of his premises. So as I give an overview of what Braverman wrote, I felt compelled to add a critique of my own. I’d appreciate your feedback.
Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital gives a scathing rebuke of capitalism in his landmark, in-depth study of labor in America. Braverman sees capitalism as a raging beast of prey which has dehumanized and degraded the work force through demanding complete control of the production process. Braverman contends that these are the unavoidable consequences of the capitalistic system which offers no greater purpose than producing a profit. In essence, capitalism in its incessant drive for efficiency and production perfection has bankrupted the labor force, impoverished family and society, and has entrapped millions in a system which ultimately is concerned with nothing more than the accumulation of additional capital.
Braverman in meticulous fashion outlines the historical development of industry which led to the degradation of labor through the step-by-step division of labor process. Skilled craftsmen and tradesmen who once owned the entire production process have become just a small cog in the wheel of capitalism. The men who owned the capital became more and more interested in controlling the entire production process in order to maximize efficiency and increase profits. An independent craftsman once retained all the skills to produce a product on his own. But under the employ of another, the skills became divided and specialized. Modern manufacturing techniques such as the assembly line further broke down labor into small repetitious actions which require modest training or knowledge. Braverman shows how a worker’s skill has been completely degraded to the point that they scarcely need any skill at all. The laborer has become a mere object who sells his labor – not skill, knowledge, or product – but labor to the capitalist. The capitalist in turn buys that labor at the cheapest wages possible. Furthermore, Braverman boldly claims that this subdivision of the individual “is a crime against the person and against humanity” (51). It not only de-skills the workers, but it also de-humanizes them. Laborers, in Braverman’s view, have become so degraded that they are no longer essential to the whole industrial process as they have been stripped of their intelligence making them nearly mindless machines.
Braverman goes on to show that through the influence of Fredrick Taylor’s turn-of-the-twentieth century theory of scientific management, this degradation of labor was purposefully done. As industries grew, a whole new layer of management was required to coordinate the industrial process. The truly revolutionary thing about management was that it codified procedures not leaving anything to the judgment of the laborer. Under Taylor’s influence, management would require nothing less than complete control of the production process. Where at first management might say to an employee ‘do this in this amount of time’ they would now say ‘do this exactly in this way, this many repetitions in this much time.’ The purpose was control. Control brought a never ending drive for efficiency because the greater the efficiency, the greater the profit. The ones who are in control are the owners and managers of capital. Braverman contends that all the benefits of the capitalist system are for the capitalist alone, and they have gained these benefits on the backs of laborers who have been de-humanized and forced to follow the capitalistic model of production.
In Braverman’s view, all of this creates an unavoidable tension between the capitalist and the laborer. One is always trying to control. The laborer is always trying to do as little as possible to gain as much as they can. From this point of view, capitalism becomes an extremely inefficient economic mechanism. The owner of capital can never tap the potential of the laborer in such a system. Competition between companies creates the need to hide knowledge and “steal” customers. It seems that Braverman is claiming that the contentious capitalistic climate puts all of society at the mercy of the almighty dollar where one cannot even enjoy recreation without bowing your head to the capitalistic endeavors of the ones who are pining for your entertainment dollars. Braverman’s scathing rebuke of capitalism leaves one wondering how anyone could possibly derive any enjoyment out of work in such an environment where the capitalists seemingly hold all the cards.
Braverman presents formidable arguments and solid evidence in his critique of labor under our current capitalistic economic model. Braverman’s analysis of the division of labor is undisputable and can be seen in every manufacturing process. It is also not difficult to point out the degradation of the American employee’s knowledge. A quick glance at the fast food industry can attest to that fact. Anyone who has worked at McDonald’s has not walked away with the proper knowledge of how to fry potatoes. The McDonald’s worker has learned the mindless task of knowing how to pour a bag of frozen potatoes into a batch of hot oil and then be able to recognize the sound of the buzzer telling the worker to remove them. Despite these facts, however compelling they may be, I cannot quite bring myself to wholly accept Braverman’s dreary and hopeless assessment of capitalistic society.
Braverman seems to claim that society is caught in the capitalistic system, and there is no way out as long as capitalism goes unabated. However, I would first argue that this system has provided an unprecedented high standard of living for millions. More people have more free time than generations before them ever had. More people are free to travel and enjoy other leisurely pursuits previously unattainable. In my view, the capitalistic system provides the ultimate in freedom. The technological advances in computers accentuate this freedom by empowering people with information and unprecedented opportunity. Even a computer novice with a few simple clicks of a mouse can start their own business. Education is widely available and easy to obtain. Through community colleges or on-line classes, nearly anyone can improve their education, move to a new job or even start their own small business.
On a personal note, I have experienced very little of the degraded labor of which he often speaks. Every position I have ever held from warehouse employee to office worker was nothing but an opportunity for me. I’ve never felt held back or dehumanized. In fact, I have felt emboldened to move on and pursue my own dreams and desires. Perhaps this is where Braverman’s analysis is at its weakest. Capitalism offers freedom to the individual to learn, gain experience, get more education and leave the confines of a dead-end job for something more meaningful. Braverman seems to put little import into a person’s happiness as if it does not exist or is not real. He would also scoff at the idea of someone pursuing additional education in order to advance in a more fulfilling career because in his view education leads to “conformity to routines” (199). But capitalism is not a conspiracy to rob humans of their true purpose in life. Every society conforms to routines; it is called culture. And while capitalism might define a lot of the motivations of people concerning work in this modern age, it does not take away from the routines of humanity which have given people purpose, enjoyment, and societal bonds. Braverman may not like the looks of the modern capitalistic culture, but he most likely was a beneficiary of it.
One could learn a lot from Braverman, and it should be a required read for every capitalist. There should be more humanity in the work place. Compassion and respect for the laborer should be given its proper due. I think there is a proper way to balance the balance sheet with a healthy work environment in which the laborers feel empowered, though I doubt Braverman would think so. Ultimately, besides giving us a formidable history of labor, Braverman seems to be giving us a nostalgic plea to go back and work the land on the family farm – something that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.
Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth
Century. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998.