A Classic of Our Time: 'Labor and Monopoly Capital' after a Quarter-Century

Article excerpt

Three years ago, on the occasion of its silver anniversary, Contemporary Sociology, the American Sociological Association's book review journal, published a special section on the ten most influential books of the previous twenty-five years. Each book chosen for this honor by Contemporary Sociology editorial board was reassessed by a notable figure in the field. One of the books selected was Harry Braveman's Labor and Monopoly Capital. The sociologist who wrote on Braverman's book was Michael Burawoy. Burawoy's article, pointedly entitled "A Classic of Its Time," began by saying:

There are two types of classics: those we remember and those we forget. Those to which we return again and again stand out as sources of continuing inspiration. They are sufficiently profound to endure and sufficiently multivalent and multilayered to sustain new interpretations. Such works are rare. More usual are classics whose impact is singular and therefore more ephemeral. They transform a field but are then absorbed and transcended. Harry Braverman's Labor and Monopoly Capital is of the latter kind. It brought together and reconfigured both stratification theory and industrial sociology, reverberating into political sociology. But it is no mecca to which we make continual pilgrimage. Its contributions have become conventional wisdom, the field has moved on.(1)

Burawoy then went on to depict what he saw as the many failings of Labor and Monopoly Capital and the ways in which a more scientific sociology had transcended it. According to Burawoy, Braverman's analysis begins and ends with a very simple idea: "what has come to be known as 'the deskilling hypothesis,'" according to which "management expropriated control from workers through deepening the division of labor, particularly the division between mental and manual labor ... How could such a simple, even unoriginal thesis," Burawoy asks, "transform the field of sociology?"

The answer, he says, lies in the weaknesses of industrial sociology and stratification theory at the time Braverman was writing. Sociology in these areas, up until the early 1970s, consisted largely of "a subjectivism that focused exclusively on responses to given structures and an ahistoricism which took those structures as natural and unchanging." Unfortunately, Burawoy says, Braverman in countering this presented an objectivism that was almost as unbalanced as the subjectivism it replaced. "Individuals are no longer conceived of as mobile atoms moving through a socioeconomic space, but are stripped of agency to become 'effects' of the positions they hold .... [For Braverman] workers were neither rational nor irrational, but instead, they were stripped of all subjectivity. They became objects of labor, appendages of machines, another instrument of production, executors of managerial conceptions." Indeed, in Braverman's theory, Burawoy goes so far as to claim, "worker opposition to management" is relegated "to the margins of history." Furthermore, we are told that Braverman's "simple polarization thesis" with respect to skill "does not work. Braverman himself had recognized that the rate of birth of new skilled occupations counteracted, even if it did not overwhelm, progressive deskilling."

Although Labor and Monopoly Capital" restored history and the specificity to capitalism" it nonetheless did not provide, according to Burawoy, the basis for a truly scientific approach. "Critical studies," he writes, "quickly emerged to counter Braverman's reduction of labor control to the expropriation of skill." For Braverman "management was a black box that simply transmitted market pressures into the expropriation of control" while more recent research has focused on the "managerial labor process." Andrew Friedman and others challenged Braverman's "objectivist bias" by emphasizing how management sought to "elicit consent to managerial goals."

Labor historians, meanwhile, followed E. …