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Critical labor process analysis began with Marx’s (1976) distinction, in Capital, volume I (The Production Process of Capital) between ”the labour process in general” and ”the labor process combined with the process of creating value [Wertbildungsprozess]” -the ”valorization process [Verwertungsprozess]” (pp. 283-306). Marx emphasized the ontological significance of the labor process: humanity must interact with nature to survive (cultivating crops, making clothes, building shelter, etc.). The labor process is simultaneously the foundation of creativity as ideas are externalized and objectified. Even in the industrial age, the laboring human is essential: ”A machine which is not active in the labour process is useless. ”Living labour must seize on [machinery and raw materials] and ”awaken them from the dead. ”Bathed in the fire of labour . . . and infused with [its] vital energy machinery and raw materials become consumable commodities or the materials for new labor processes (Marx 1976: 289).
Within the valorization process, the labor process is changed fundamentally. The worker and process are governed by the structures of capitalism and imperatives for profit maximization through ever-increasing efficiency.
In the early 1900s, Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford systematized, in theory and practice, key aspects of the Wertbildungsprozess. While Taylor (1911: 13-21) identified ”natural soldiering (the ”natural instinct to take things easy ) as a problem, ”systematic soldiering was of greater concern. Management relied too heavily on workers knowledge and experience allowing them to systematically control the pace of work. Furthermore, workers moving from planning to execution wasted valuable time. Taylor s ”task idea separated planning (head labor) from execution (hand labor) with management controlling planning, assigning individual workers precisely detailed, simplified tasks. Scientific management created savings in labor costs through increased efficiency, deskilling labor processes, and placing the creative aspects of production and planning directly under managerial control.
Ford used Taylor s ”task idea to create an entire system of mechanized, mass production. Pioneering the development and use of simple-to-install, standardized, interchangeable parts and specialized tools, ”Fordism assigned each worker simple, easily performed tasks – eliminating expensive, skilled assemblers. Arranging those tasks sequentially along continuous, automated assembly lines, management controls work speed while mass-producing standardized products.
Studying the impact of globalization, advanced technology, and the computerization of production, Mandel, Braverman and Burawoy updated Marx and revitalized analyses of labor processes. Mandel examined differing forms of exploitation as monopoly capital protected heavy investments in mechanized production within the global north while locating labor intensive, resource extracting work in the global south. Braverman argued that the imperatives of capitalist production, shaped by Taylorism, led to the continuing ”degradation of work. Under monopoly capitalism, the computerization of traditional blue-collar, clerical and service industry jobs made work experiences increasingly similar, homogenizing the class structure. Burawoy’s work added important subtlety to Braverman’s work by showing that in the midst of increasingly mindless production, workers, through ”labor games that keep things interesting, are unwittingly co-opted by capital s Wertbildungsprozess rather than resisting it.
Contemporary sociology, drawing from Foucault, emphasizes docile bodies, economy and technologies of power, disciplinary practices and surveillance in the labor process, eschewing Marx, Mandel and Braverman s grander narratives.
- Braverman, H. (1974) Labor and Monopoly Capitalism. Monthly Review Press, New York.
- Taylor, F. W. (1911) The Principles of Scientific Management. Harper and Brothers, New York.