Academic journal article Capital & Class

'They Can't Be the Buffer Any Longer': Front-Line Managers and Class Relations under White-Collar Lean Production

Academic journal article Capital & Class

'They Can't Be the Buffer Any Longer': Front-Line Managers and Class Relations under White-Collar Lean Production

Article excerpt

Introduction

The 1970s produced a significant debate within sociology on the rise of a new middle class that, unlike the middle class of independent producers and the self-employed, was intimately connected to developments within capitalist labour processes. Within the debate, Poulantzas (1975) and Carchedi (1977) emphasised the specific social relations of those who, while not owning the means of production, carry out functions on behalf of capital. Braverman (1974) was also central to the debate, as his contribution to labour process analysis centred on the increased division of labour and the creation of new roles to superintend the performance of reconfigured labour as workers' knowledge was progressively captured, codified and desublimated into the growing hierarchies of control. These hierarchies resulted in the increased division of managerial work and the diminution of the hitherto extensive power of front-line managers (FLMs), as managerial hierarchies became staffed increasingly by graduate intakes (Child and Partridge 1982). So powerful was this tendency that in a number of accounts, managerial and supervisory employees were characterised as being proletarianised as they experienced 'greater insecurity, stress, [and] decline in pay relative to senior management' (Scarborough and Burrell 1996: 185), and were conceptualised as wage labour and members of the working class (Meiksins 1986; Smith and Thompson 1999).

Today, theories focusing on the centrality of workplace relations in the generation of class relations have all but disappeared (Atkinson 2009), overshadowed firstly by what Crompton (2008) termed the 'employment aggregate' approach to class', associated with Goldthorpe (1980) and Erik Olin Wright (1997), and secondly by more cultural analyses influenced by Bourdieu's (1986) emphasis on cultural and social, as opposed to economic, capital (Savage 2000; Skeggs 1997; Hebson 2009). Where there is contemporary concern with groups at work that might be still termed 'new middle class', excessive weight rests on subjectivity and the ontological insecurity of managers, (see, for instance, Thomas and Linstead 2002; Willmott 1997). Even theorists who continue to acknowledge their debt to Braverman now eschew the connection between class and the labour process as crude and unhelpful (Hassard et al. 2009). The legacies of Carchedi and Poulantzas fare no better, with Smith and Thompson (1999: 219) dismissing them as being concerned with 'the very sterile functionalist project of manufacturing classes out of the technical division of labor'. Indeed, all theories relating labour process perspectives to class analysis are rejected in toto, as 'attempts ... to reconnect the analysis to class theory ... are flawed enterprises' (1999: 205).

This paper takes issue with these conclusions to return to social class and the workplace, not in terms of a long British tradition of determining class through subjective self-classification (see Nichols 1979 for an effective critique of this approach, and Marks and Baldry 2009 for its continuation), but rather utilising much ignored Carchedian perspectives on the class relations entered into during production. Of course, class relations in capitalist societies are manifested beyond production. Indeed, Marx's detailed examination of class within the production process was entitled 'Results of the Immediate Production Process' (Marx 1976). That class relations were not restricted to this sphere was indicated both by his stress on the 'immediate' and through other works, such as Class Struggles in France (2007). Nevertheless, despite this qualification, focus on relations in 'the hidden abode of production' (Marx 1976: 279-80), with an attendant concentration on ownership, control, and the production of surplus, was central; and now, as then, these relations are frequently ignored or obscured.

This article examines the changing class relations reflected in, and mediated by, the roles played by front-line managers (hereafter FLMs) in Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC). …

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