Human beings have always worked. But the way we work has changed over time. In working we not only create the necessities for our own survival but we create the world around us and create ourselves. Work not only defines our relation to the natural world which we work upon. It also defines our relations with each other and how we understand ourselves. As our labor becomes more powerful- more productive and impressive in its achievements- it takes on more complexity and calls forth a more sophisticated social system to coordinate all of these diverse and complex labors.
Certainly other animals are capable of very complex and impressive work: a bee hive, an ant colony, etc. But yet there seems to be something distinctive about the way humans work, the way we relate to the natural world, the way we build societies… Karl Marx says about this question, “What distinguishes the worst of architects from the best of bees is that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he builds it.” (1) I think Marx was on to an important point here. While the bee, the bird, the ant, all engage in instinctive acts of work, acts they have repeated for hundreds of years, the human thinks creatively about work. Humans look at the world and dream up new things to build and new ways to build them. We can separate the conception of work from the execution (the carrying out of) of work. (2)
In this daily act of doing, we construct not only houses, bridges and fields, but also all of the social relations of a labor process. Human labor has always been a collective process. Our social labor is greater than the sum of its parts. When we work we enter into relations of cooperation with each other. The labor process is this organization of our social cooperation. As our social relations evolve, as our relation to nature evolves, and as our collective knowledge evolves so too does the labor process evolve.
To understand our current condition, to understand modern man, it is crucial to understand what is unique about work in a capitalist society and the ways this labor process has evolved over the history of capitalism. [We should start by remembering three things about work in a capitalist society: 1. Work happens under conditions of private ownership over the means of production. That is, a small group of people own the main productive apparatus of modern society and the rest of us sell our labor to them for wages. 2. A capitalist only invests in production in order to make a profit. 3. The exchange of labor and the products of this labor is coordinated by a concept of value which we measure in money.]
We should start by noticing the distinctive way labor is used in a capitalist society. When a worker produces a product for a capitalist he doesn’t sell his labor, he sells his labor power. That is, a worker doesn’t sell a definite amount of work to the capitalist. He sells his ability to work for a given amount of time. It is up to the capitalist to get the most labor out of this period of time as possible in order to maximize profits. Thus with capitalism we get the problem of management: of how to control and organize the labor process for maximum efficiency. This is why the question of time becomes so important in capitalist society. The capitalist is constantly seeking ways to get the most value out of every minute. This constant question of time in relation to productivity permeates all of society, even outside the workplace, the more capitalist social relations become dominant.
Capitalism didn’t just create a new labor process from the start. It inherited a preexisting labor process and a preexisting division of labor. Work in feudal society was mostly skilled craft work. Goldsmiths, cobblers, weavers, etc. all owned their own means of production and had total control over their own labor process. Their trade took years of study to master and required an extensive period of apprenticeship. The agricultural work of the peasant classes, though not generally considered craft-work, was a form of skilled labor that took years to learn. Parents passed down their collective knowledge of farm work to their children as the whole family shared in a collective labor process.
In order to transform this craft-work into a capitalist labor process these workers had to be separated from their own means of production and be turned into wage laborers totally dependent on capital in order to survive. This was a long, complex and painful historical process (called primitive accumulation) that will have to be discussed elsewhere. We can still see this process at work in parts of the 3rd world where free trade policies like NAFTA destabilize traditional agriculture sending people out into the job market looking for work as wage laborers.
One of the first innovations in the capitalist labor process was to bring all of these workers together into one workplace. This allowed the capitalist more control over the labor process thus beginning the long history of a conscious manipulation of the nature of work in order to extract as much value as possible from a workforce.
One of the simplest ways to do this is to increase the total amount of time workers work. The early history of capitalism was one of long working hours and constant battles over the length of the working day. It wasn’t until 1833 that a legal length of the working day was established in England. It lasted from 5:30am to 8:30 pm. Children were forbidden from working more than 12 hours a day. French workers workers won a 12-hour day in 1848. The battle for the 8 hour day began in the US after the Civil War:
“The first and great necessity of the present, to free the labor of this country from capitalistic slavery, is the passing of a law by which 8 hours shall be the normal working day in all the States of the Union. We are resolved to put forth all our strength until this glorious result is attained.”- The General Congress of Labour held in Baltimore, August 1866(3)
It wasn’t until 1936 that the battle for the 8-hour day was won in the US.
The issue of the length of the working day is still an ever-present issue in capitalism. It manifests itself in petty struggles to stop workers from milking the clock, to battles over vacation time, retirement age, over-time, and, still, the length of the work-week. As long as labor power remains a commodity there will always be struggles over time.
To the extent that the working day can no longer be extended (whether because of class struggle or because the working day itself just isn’t long enough for the voracious appetite of the capitalist class) the capitalist is driven to increase the amount of surplus value workers produce for the capitalist within a given period of time. This means exerting more control over the labor process- controlling how workers work- in order to make this work the most efficient.
The history of work in capitalism is full of experiments and theories (management theory, industrial sociology, human-relations theory, etc.) all devoted to this problem of labor-control. One of the most influential of such theorists was Frederick Taylor who pioneered the concept of “scientific management”. [Taylor's theories, a pure distillation of capitalist management, deserve a video of their own.] Taylor sought to separate conception and execution within the labor process. A task was studied in detail by an engineer, all of its motions mapped out, timed and measured and then reorganized so as to achieve maximum efficiency. The worker was then trained to work in this new efficient method thus depriving workers of any control over their own work.
A management guide about office work from 1960 broke down the category “open and close” like this (4):
File drawer, open and close, no selection – .04 minutes
Folder, open or close flaps- .04 minutes
Desk drawer, open side drawer of standard desk- .014 minutes
Open center drawer- .026 minute
close side- .015 minutes
close center-.027 minutes
This information was collected in order to organize the placement of objects in the office and the motions of workers so as to achieve maximum efficiency.
A big part of scientific management was the breaking down of work into its component tasks which could then be spread out amongst many workers. This is different than the division of labor in society in which the labors of autonomous producers are coordinated through a market. Here the labor process itself is divided and reorganized via the authority of management. We often associate this concept with assembly lines where each worker performs a simple, repetitive task before the commodity passes to the next worker. But actually, most work in a capitalist workplace is divided up like this. We rarely see a product through from start to finish. This allows work to be reduced to just a few simple, repetitive motions requiring little skill. The worker needn’t know anything about the labor process as a whole or even know what it is he or she is making. This process is called the “rationalization” of work.
This has several implications:
The worker looses control of the pace of work. As a cog in a much larger mechanism the worker is forced to work at a given speed, a speed which can be controlled by management. This in turn gives management more control over the amount of value workers produce within a given period of time.
Though more and more science and planning may go into the organization of the labor process by engineers and managers, the worker understands the process less and less. The worker, instead of being a skilled craftsman with years of training could be anyone able to follow simple directions. The traditional craft-worker is undermined and the “ideal worker” comes to resemble an unskilled worker-drone.
Unskilled labor is cheaper labor. This raises profits. The more work is “deskilled” the more all jobs start to resemble one another in skill. It becomes easy for workers to move from one occupation to another. It is also easier to replace workers.
This new labor process calls forth a whole host of new occupations. Engineering departments are created to map out shop-floors, design new machines, time-workers and design labor processes. The job of management becomes too complicated for the individual capitalist to handle. The job of controlling workers is actually rationalized itself, and a class of salaried managers is created to do this work of management for the capitalist. (In the upper levels of management the role of capitalist and manager blur together in CEO’s. And of course, in the modern corporation the CEO comes closest to the personification of the individual 19th century capitalist. More on the evolution of the capitalist in a future video.)
The increasing size of these rationalized, planned factories requires a massive extension of bookkeeping. Inventories, debts, payroll, profits, etc. all must be tracked meticulously. The job of bookkeeper is rationalized, broken down into a large gradation of occupations all involved in tracking the flow of value in and out of the company. (And because nobody can be trusted all counting of value happens twice via a system of double-bookkeeping. Outside the firm accounting agencies, government regulators, and tax-offices all duplicate this booking again. Thus even though the labor process of bookkeeping has been rationalized, it is all grossly inefficient from a social standpoint. But the tracking of value flows is an indispensable task in the modern capitalist firm so society tolerates this duplicate labor.)
The increased efficiency of labor means that there are a lot more commodities to be sold. This calls forth a tremendous increase in marketing. The job of marketing is essentially to produce the consumer. The modern capitalist firm has a huge marketing department and this work of marketing is also broken down into all of its component pieces and rationalized. Marketing becomes more and more a part of the experience of living in a modern capitalist society. Try to imagine how different society and people would be without advertising and you will understand how effectively marketing has been at producing the consumer.
Now if you are thinking critically at this point you may be saying “…but all work in a capitalist society is not unskilled!” This is true. The process of rationalization of labor is the tendency in which capital moves. But this tendency also calls forth scientists to design efficient machines, engineers to design factories, management experts, etc. The greater the pool of unskilled workers at one pole the more there is a need for a small amount of specialists at the other end. And the work of these specialists can also be rationalized…
An important principle here is Babbage’s principle (named for Charles Babbage) which states that the breaking down of a job into component parts always saves money. If you have a skilled worker like a doctor, why should this doctor waste time filling out insurance forms, or doing simple things like weighing people and taking their blood pressure? You could hire less doctors if you had people like nurses to do the simpler work, secretaries to fill out forms, billing offices to bill patients, lab technicians to analyze data, etc. A hospital is the perfect example of the Babbage principle at work. We see a gradation of skill from doctors to janitors as management has broken up all the tasks required to run the hospital, separating out each layer of skill so as to cheapen the worker whenever possible. This is why most of your time at the doctor’s office doesn’t involve you actually seeing a doctor. You probably only see the doctor for 10 minutes if you are lucky. The rest of the time you are talking nurses, med students and secretaries.
When new industries are created like, say the the computer industry, there is often a large degree of skill involved in the labor process. Over time this labor process is rationalized and skill is squeezed out of the labor process as much as possible. Computer work today is now broken up between software designers, code writers, designing and manufacturing hardware, tech support, etc. While there is still lot of skill that goes into computers it has also become a lot easier to do things like, replace parts, write code, design webpages etc. Many aspects of the computer world have become less-skilled reserving the skilled jobs for a smaller group of workers. (Smaller in portion to the amount of commodities being produced.)
Ever had a really frustrating time on the phone to a customer service representative? After going through a computerized menu for 5 minutes, listening to Kenny G for 10 minutes, you finally get a human being. But the person doesn’t know how to help you and doesn’t know any one in the office who can help you. Customer service work has been extremely rationalized. Workers have computers which guide them through answering all the expected questions. But if a question deviates from their script they are totally helpless. The modern worker doesn’t understand the entirety of the labor process. They are just given a tiny, repetitive task to repeat. So when the customer service agent tells you that there is nobody that can solve your problem this is literally true- the labor process controls the worker, the worker doesn’t control the work. There really is nobody there that knows what is going on or who can deviate from the script.
And this is the night-marish potential in modern capitalism: That there really is nobody that knows what is going on. We becomes a cog in a very large process that we can’t understand. We perform repetitive, simplified tasks and the motion of our work is controlled by forces outside of us, beyond our control.
But labor hasn’t always been like this and it doesn’t have to be like this. There is nothing about labor itself that requires it to be unskilled, repetitive or brutish. But once a change has become generalized throughout society we tend to think that life has always been this way: that labor has always been a commodity and that it is “progress” to attempt to cheapen labor whenever possible. From the perspective of capital this is indeed progress: the progress of making profit. But from the perspective of humanity there is nothing progressive or efficient about wasting human life and potential merely to feed the insatiable appetite of capital.
1. Karl Marx, Das Kapital. Vol. 1 p. 284 (Penguin edition) from the beginning of the chapter “The Labor process and the Valorization Process.”
2. In chapter one of “Labor And Monopoly Capital” Harry Braverman points out that there are some other animals that problem solve in their work, that can use simple tools in creative ways, but that the difference in degree to which this predominates in human labor is enough to signify a qualitative difference between man and other animals. He cites the Hegelian idea of change in quantity becoming a change in quality.
3. Quoted in Das Kapital p.414
In 1866 Karl Marx himself drafted a proposal for the 8-hour day as one of the demands of the International Workingmens’ Association. Das Kapital p. 415, bottom footnote (Penguin edition)
4. The manual was “A Guide to Office Clerical Standards: A compilation of Standard Data Used by Large American Companies” (Detroit 1960) Quoted in Labor and Monopoly Capital by Harry Braverman, p.221. The manual goes on to time walking, walking in confined spaces, turning while walking, reading a line of typed copy, “jogging” paper, cutting paper with scissors, stapling, opening mail, folding paper, and even punching time clocks!