Harry Braverman Essay

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Harry Braverman, journalist, publisher, and a director of Monthly Review Press (1967-76), is best known for his book Labor and Monopoly Capital, published in 1974. This helped to continue the Marxist tradition within class theory when current analysis was centering on the rise of the middle class and the increasingly diamond-shaped nature of the class structure.

In Braverman s version of Marxist theory, the capitalist labor process, geared as it was to profitable production through generating more value from workers than is returned in the form of wages, had brought the worker and the labor process under the direct control of the capitalist and this has meant the deskilling of jobs and individuals. The industrialization of the twentieth century had through the scientific study of work and the assembly line created jobs with minimal training times and very short job cycles (often well under a minute).

A central message of Braverman for the late twentieth century was that the advent of new technologies (computerized or otherwise), the increasing employment in service jobs, and modern participative management approaches would continue the deskilling trend, and not reverse it as many anticipated.

The major criticism that has been made of the deskilling thesis is that control of labor need not become an end in itself for management and the achievement of its prime objective – profitability -may not always be furthered by deskilling work. For example, the number of workers may be reduced by increasing the discretion of a smaller core workforce; or more fluid forms of work organization may aid the profitable adjustment to fluctuating product market conditions and new technological opportunities.

Nevertheless, a key legacy of Braverman was to ensure that scientific management and its effects on workers were not increasingly treated as simply a benchmark of the first era of mass production. Much work in the twenty-first century remains low skilled: there have been clear cases where technology has reduced the skill level required in particular jobs and the discretion given to individuals, and many of the jobs created with the great growth in the service sector are low skilled, e.g., those in fast-food chains or call centers.

Bibliography:

  • Braverman, H. (1984) Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. Monthly Review Press, New York.

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