Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Psychologising the Subject: HRM, Commodification, and the Objectification of Labour

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Psychologising the Subject: HRM, Commodification, and the Objectification of Labour

Article excerpt

Introduction: The Argument in Overview

As a starting point, we wish to offer some a priori answers to what we believe are five questions that are of central interest to the theme of this special issue of Economic and Labour Relations Review:

1. Is labour a commodity? The assumption that human labour is (or should be) a marketised and freely traded 'factor of production' with the capitalist mode is one of the key precepts of classical and neo-classical labour economics. However, like much that passes for reality in this realm of academic knowledge, the textbook model fails to match the lived reality.

2. Does capital want labour fully commodified? Yes, this has been the aspiration of employers, management practitioners and theorists since the time of the first Industrial Revolution.

3. Is commodification all that capital wants or needs? No, definitely not. Even a passing familiarity with the history of chattel slavery would demonstrate (e.g. Genovese 1976) that to assume that commodification is a sufficient condition for optimising labour value appropriation, reflects a naivety about the world of work and the human dynamics of the workplace that cannot be allowed to stand.

4. What else do employers really want? They want human labour fully objectified--psychologically as well as physically. Through a process of systematic objectification, they want to have total control over workers' hearts and heads as well as their bodies. The underlying dynamic of the capitalist labour process is not market commodification per se; rather, it is labour objectification.

5. Is objectification really attainable? No, not under any mode where embodied, thinking and emotional labour is still necessary. Workers have their own individual and collective expectations and agendas, and these are most unlikely to be fully congruent with those of management or the employing organisation. This has not stopped management engaging in an ongoing search for congruence, and has meant that capital's objectification project has become more sophisticated over time.

In essence then, we argue that for employers, the primary agenda is not one of commodification but of objectification. Labour commodification is undoubtedly essential for the viability of market capitalism. Indeed, it may take on added significance at particular moments such as periods of skills shortage, but it is not enough. However, the most proximal, intimate and (potentially) insidious facet of labour utilisation, we suggest, is management's desire to transform fellow human beings into value-conferring objects at workplace scale. Commodification gives us labour as an individualised 'exchange' object ('labour power') external to the organisation. Yet, as both structuralist labour process theorists (Legge 1995b; Thompson and McHugh 2002; Watson 2004) and post-structuralist critical management studies writers (Townley 1994; Willmott 1994; Grant et al 2004) contend, it is what goes on within the workplace that really matters: namely, the process of attempted objectification. What lies behind the managerial ideal of human labour as an individualised 'resource' object is the employer's drive to control employee heads and hearts, skill and effort.

As both the classical and radical schools of economic thought acknowledge, labour is a commodity like no other: it thinks, feels and (re)acts. People who happen to be categorised as 'employees' are, first and foremost, social subjects. The fundamental (and ongoing) management dilemma thus has to do with how best to objectify the subject at the point of production.

By way of example: at law, chattel slaves were certainly tradable human commodities; but as the US social historian Eugene Genovese (1976) has documented so movingly, both the slave-owners and the slaves knew only too well that the real struggle in the Deep South was not over who won the slave auction but over who dominated effort and identity within the workplace. …

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