Monday, June 21, 2010

Working for capitalism

Class is not a thing but a relationship, an antagonism that is situated in production. Sociologists have long tried to understand class by reference to occuptional groupings because one can only identify what class one belongs to by locating oneself within the system of production. It is not a coincidence that workplace sociologists such as Bradley et al have done some of the essential work in restoring class to its central explanatory role in the social sciences. They build on the work of a generation of radicalised social theorists such as Huw Beynon, Theo Nichols, Richard Pfeffer and Harry Braverman, in describing how class power is inherited, wielded in the workplace, and rewarded with a greater or lesser share of profits - as well as how class systems are perpetually restructured as production is reshaped, and work takes on new forms.

Some social theorists maintain a sort of apocalyptic thesis in which technology and the 'knowledge economy' are rapidly obliterating the working class. In this view, work is something antiquated and mechanical, not something that one performs with advanced information technology or, heaven forfend, with the use of skilled knowledge. The worker is a dusty old chap with a spanner, not someone in a pressed shirt sitting in front of an LCD screen. Of course, 'work' has always had a broader meaning than such revisionists allow. The 'working class' has never been defined by a particular skill set, a particular kind of consumption, a particular set of values, sartorial tendencies or gustatory propensities. Therefore the emergence of a white collar proletariat with the ability to use Microsoft Office programmes should not seem counterintuitive - recruitment agencies make a living from this phenomenon. Their class situation is predicated on their relationship to the means of production, which determines how much power and self-direction they will have in the workplace.

In light of this, consider the following talk from Dan Pink, a sort of management guru and former speech-writer for Al Gore. He introduces the topic of 'drive', of what motivates people, and affirms - in a strangely affectless, yet gushing manner - the virtues of autonomy and self-direction in the workplace. It's a mantra for hippy capitalism:

Pink's assertions about what motivates people are not without interest. However, the first thing that strikes one about this little talk is that all of Pink's examples of "cool" workplace practises, wherein workers' productivity dramatically improves upon their being freed from management and the incentives structure, are taken from the software industry. They are taken from a set of employees whose particular role in production is necessarily in some sense both directive and executive. They are an atypical group of workers in this respect. The very fact that it would be possible to give them enough money for cash not to be a motivational issue, and thereafter allow them autonomy in the workplace, means that they are closer to the professional middle class than to the working class. For Pink and those of his persuasion, (and class purview no doubt), this is the future of work. But what the Pinks of this world don't get is that management has an interest in proletarianising such workers, and thus of turning their labour into a routinised series of discrete, mechanical tasks as far as possible.

When new technologies come along, part of the struggle between workers and management takes place over the former's mastery of the subject and thus their ability to resist managerial attempts to oversee, discipline and control their working day. The more managers can get to grips with this technology, or find surrogates and auxiliaries who already have a firm grip on it, the more they can break down workers' tasks into manageable units, the better to surveille, control and extract more surplus value. These processes are already well under way in the IT sector, and in all areas where information technology plays an important role. This is because it is capitalism, and under capitalism managers will always find themselves compelled to exert more control in the workplace, and reduce workers' autonomy accordingly. This might be irrational in one sense, in that suppressing creativity holds back innovation and production - but when has this not been the case under capitalism? When have management ever allowed skills to remain on the shop floor for too long? And when has bourgeois social theory not been available to obscure this process, such that the distribution of rewards and privilege is held to closely mirror the distribution of talent and desert? Only under socialism, in a situation where industry was democratically controlled and not subject to the extraction of profit, would motivations such as creativity, autonomy and altruism be important to production.