One of the joys of living is reading brilliant writing and I read a lot as a consequence. Not all of my reading is brilliant though, as you might expect, given my profession. As a young postgraduate student, one of the best books I read, among many, was – Labor and Monopoly Capital – which was written by – Harry Braverman – and published by the Monthly Review Press in 1974. It was a prescient piece of writing and is still 100 per cent relevant to the struggles today for working people against capital – both industrial and financial. It provides us with a path to resistance. It also points us in the direction of identifying the problems in the world today. And those problems start at the most elemental level – us.
I have written about these themes before and these posts are indicative of many:
1. Why progressive values align more closely with our basic needs (January 21, 2019).
2. Neoliberalism corrupts the core of societal values (March 28, 2018).
3. Why Uber is not a progressive development (August 16, 2016).
4. The mass consumption era and the rise of neo-liberalism (January 7, 2016).
5. Self-imposed corporate regulations control workers but choke productivity (October 30, 2014).
6. Bullshit jobs – the essence of capitalist control and realisation (September 5, 2013).
7. Sport and doping – the spreading tentacles of capital (February 11, 2013).
8. We need more artists and fewer entrepreneurs (January 10, 2013).
9. The labour market is not like the market for bananas (August 17, 2012).
He began his working life as a coppersmith and these trade skills allowed him to work in industry for many years, while, at the same time developing radical frames of references for what he was experiencing.
The way the Great Depression damaged the workers and enhanced capital led him to become politically active in the Young People’s Socialist League.
He crafted his writing skills using a pseudonym (“Harry Frankel”) while the red-baiting antics of the FBI got him sacked from his job at a Steel mill.
Later in the 1960s, he became an editor in a New York-based publishing house (Grove Press) which published the works of the American beats, lots of alternative poetry and produced a literary magazine where the likes of Bertoit Brecht and Albert Camus would be published.
One of the better publishers that is.
He then moved to the managing director’s role at Monthly Review Press, his final paid job.
In 1974, he published the magnificent book – Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century – which traced the way in which Capitalism was impacting on the design of work in America.
Every person who aspires to a Left sensitivity should read this book.
Harry Braverman examined what he termed his “de-skilling” hypothesis where capital systematically restructured labour processes to enhance their control in order to extract higher profits.
He also proposed that commodification was becoming generalised under Capitalism – extending into more and more areas of our ‘social’ lives.
Progressively, these “labour processes” (market-values) subsume our whole lives – sport, leisure, learning, family – the lot.
Everything becomes a capitalist surplus-creating process.
This process has intensified under neoliberalism – it seeks to commodify everything. That is create labour processes that produce commodities for profit.
The spread of the labour process is one of the characteristic features of the last several decades.
Even those activities that have previously been part of our non-working lives – our lives away from the oppression of work – are targets for commodification.
If you read Labor and Monopoly Capital, you will find that Braverman tried to reorientate the debate on the Left back to the essence of work and the dynamics of surplus value production as it affected the way people worked and lived.
He was particularly interested in how workplaces were changing as the corporate structures became more concentrated and politically powerful.
This was the beginning of the period when the Left were becoming obsessed with ‘post modernism’ and losing touch with the essence of the Marxist tradition.
So various dead-ends starting emerging – gender, ethnicity, sexuality. Identity politics!
I am not saying these are dead-ends because of their unimportance. Each of these issues is crucially important. But as the Left splintered into various groups pursuing one identity issue or another, it lost a central organising focus – the class conflict between labour and capital – within which the pursuit of these identity issues would have been more powerful and effective.
With the two trends – an obsession with ‘individualism’ (breaking down the collective and societal understandings of poverty, unemployment etc) and the broadening of the labour processes – many aspects of our society changed fundamentally.
Harry Braverman wrote (p.14):
And finally, the new wave of radicalism of the 1960s was animated by its own peculiar and in some ways unprecedented concerns. Since the discontents of youth, intellectuals, feminists, ghetto populations, etc., were produced not by the “breakdown” of capitalism but by capitalism functioning at the top of its form, so to speak, working at its most rapid and energetic pace, the focus of rebellion was now somewhat different from that of the past. At least in part, dissatisfaction centered not so much on capitalism’s inability to provide work as on the work it provides, not on the collapse of its productive processes but on the appalling effects of these processes at their most “successful.” It is not that the pressures of poverty, unemployment, and want have been eliminated — far from it — but rather that these have been supplemented by a discontent which cannot be touched by providing more prosperity and jobs because these are the very things that produced this discontent in the first place.
Remember this was written in 1974 and he was commenting on the experience of an evolving full employment situation where workers had jobs but the jobs were being redesigned, restructured – call it how you like – into activities that increasingly alienated the workers and increased the surplus value creation for capital.
So, calling for more jobs might sound like a reasonable thing for a Leftist to advocate but our conception of full employment has to be different now to ensure we are not just satisfied with creating work.
Politicians are wont to tell us how many jobs they are creating as if that is a standard to aspire to.
But what Harry Braverman was telling us way back then was that more Capitalism of the evolved state he was commenting on is no way forward.
Fast track to December 16, 2021, and Serbian economist – Branko Milanovic – has written an excellent Op Ed – Why it is not the crisis of capitalism: The sources of discontent – which is a recycled version of an earlier Op Ed from the same author that I read in 2019.
He clearly is influenced by Harry Braverman’s insights (whether knowingly or through a sort of ‘unity of science’ phenomenon) and notes that Capitalism has been very successful:
… both in terms of its geographical span and the expansion to the areas (like leisure time, or social media) where it has created entirely new markets and commodified things that historically were never objects of transaction.
When Harry Braverman was writing, the geographical span of Capitalism was limited by the Soviet bloc, China, Cuba, etc
That has all changed since and even China’s ‘private sector’ produces “80% of value added”.
He also notes the conversion of “non-markets” into surplus-creating (profitable) activities.
People now rent their own cars (uber) or their homes (Airbnb), in addition to a host of other areas of life that were mediated through price-setting markets.
We no longer walk to the shop to buy a pizza – a teenager on a scooter buzzes it to us – for a pittance from the franchise that runs the shop.
The point that Branko Milanovic makes here is that these new forms of capitalist expansion are just an expression of what Karl Marx identified way back then.
In this blog post – The Left confuses globalisation with neo-liberalism and gets lost (April 27, 2016) – I discussed that exact point.
In the – Communist Manifesto – published in 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels discuss the way that discoveries of new lands (America, Rounding the Cape, etc) “opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie”.
The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.
They were obviously aware of the tendency of capitalism to geographical spread to open up new markets and new spaces to extract raw materials.
The search for new markets and new ways of organising production is not new and has been going on for centuries.
The widening of this push into these non-market areas of life has had a fundamental impact on our thinking.
Branko Milanovic writes:
This does not mean that we would all immediately run to rent our homes or drive our cars as taxis, but it means that we are aware of the financial loss that we make by not doing so. For many of us, once the price is right (whether because our circumstances change or the relative price increases), we shall join the new markets and thus reinforce them.
And so the gig economy has evolved as the most recent manifestation of this market broadening phenomenon.
As Harry Braverman identified in the quote above – we cannot want more of that because it makes us unhappy.
The other point he makes is that while the expansion that Marx and Engels were writing about in the C19th benefitted the elites in Europe and allowed them to appease workers with higher wages, which morphed into the era of mass consumption era, which, in turn, morphed into something even more comprehensive where aspects of our lives that were previously considered ‘non work’ (which meant non capitalist) became markets, with commodities supplied to support.
But as capitalism’s never-ending search for ‘market’ penetration continued the beneficiaries changed.
The most recent period of global expansion has not “benefit disproportionately rich countries and their populations”.
Rather, it has “benefited especially Asia, populous countries like China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia” and created a “gap between the expectations entertained by the Western middle classes and their low income growth”.
This hollowing out of the middle class in advanced nations – which is behind phenomenon such as Brexit, Trump, Yellow Vests, etc – has also been accompanied by a ‘market’ penetration into politics:
The expansion of market-like approach to societies in all (or almost all) of their aspects, which is indeed a feature of advanced capitalism, has also transformed politics into a business activity. In principle, politics, no more than our leisure time, was regarded as an area of market transactions. But both have become so. This has made politics more corrupt.
We now distrust our polity more than ever.
And they lie, cheat, defraud and get away with it.
His overall conclusion is that this “crisis is not of capitalism per se” but rather its uneven geographical spread and the “capitalist expansion to the areas that were traditionally not considered apt for commercialization”.
His solution is to wind back the “field of action” of the capitalist system.
Which is where I diverge.
I think that Karl Marx understood that capitalism had tendencies to ensure that capital as a class could reproduce.
The sort of market penetration into our previously ‘non-market’ lives is not something that can be easily wound back.
The resistance of the capitalist class is one thing.
But as noted above, after several decades of neoliberal penetration into our lives, we – us – have become the problem that needs to be addressed first.
We need to activate along the lines we wrote about in our book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017).
But to do that we need to lift our levels of education.
Progressives have to stop saying things like “we need to tax the rich to afford hospital care” or “it is fine for the government to borrow while interest rates are low” or “if our governments are not careful with taxpayers’ money then the financial markets will exact discipline” – and all the rest of the nonsense that many well-meaning commentators pump out to sound erudite.
But all they are doing is maintaining this ‘market penetration’ mentality and distorting our own personal calculations into ‘can we make a buck’ by renting our house out while we go on holiday sort of thinking.
The problem is capitalism.
Because the logic of that system evolves into what we have.
Harry Braverman understood that even though he didn’t live to see the worst of what it has become.
As the first step, education.
Then, reclaim the state.
Then evolve the production and distribution system away from one that needs to colonise every aspect of our lives with ‘markets’.
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2021 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.