Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Beyond the Fordist/post-Fordist Dichotomy: Working through 'The Second Industrial Divide.'

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Beyond the Fordist/post-Fordist Dichotomy: Working through 'The Second Industrial Divide.'

Article excerpt


Published in 1984, The Second Industrial Divide helped to initiate an exploration of contemporary changes in the fundamental nature of capitalist labor markets and industrial structure. By focusing on the evolution from mass production to systems of flexible specialization, Piore and Sabel asserted that a different model of capitalist accumulation was apparent in small industrial districts throughout Europe and the United States. By attending to difference, thereby highlighting key aspects of social and cultural history that form the backdrop of economic activity, and by focusing on the institutional framework within which large-scale economic growth takes place, Piore and Sabel provided a reference point from which to assess the changing postwar economic landscape.

The Second Industrial Divide was not the only work on these themes to emerge around the early 1980s. This period initiated a research agenda that has continued to occupy sociologists, economists, political scientists, cultural studies scholars, and geographers for well over a decade. For example, Aglietta's A Theory of Capitalist Regulation (1979, English edition), Gordon, Edwards, and Reich's Segmented Work Divided Workers (1982), Bowles, Gordon, and Weisskopf's Beyond the Waste Land (1983) and Kochan, Katz, and McKersie's The Transformation of American Industrial Relations (1986) each argue for a more institutionally contextualized understanding of the capitalist production process, placing particular emphasis on the capital-labor relation. Later in the 1980s, David Harvey's masterful work, The Condition of Postmodernity (1989) linked the debates over Fordism, post-Fordism, and flexibility to the broader methodological critique of modernity entwined within these debates. Harvey questioned whether one could or should reject modernism in favor of a postmodern perspective that focused primarily on the production of symbol and spectacle in economic and social life. He did not, however, reject wholesale the insights obtained from adopting a postmodern view. The deconstruction of labor markets, the hyper-segmentation and recombination of tasks, and the compression of time and space made possible through technological change are all tangible manifestations of advanced capitalist development.

We thus approach a central paradox: the less important the spatial barriers, the greater the sensitivity of capital to the variations of place within space, and the greater the incentive for places to be differentiated in ways attractive to capital. The result has been the production of fragmentation, insecurity, and ephemeral uneven development within a highly unified global space economy of capital flows. The historic tension within capitalism between centralization and decentralization is now being worked out in new ways.

(Harvey 1989: 295-296)

I make use of Harvey's perspective to argue against adopting an analytical framework in which one must choose between Fordist mass production or Post-Fordist flexible specialization. This is not to deny that the nature and structure of work has indeed changed over the course of the last two decades. The task is to better understand the nature, structure and depth of change and to assess the various frameworks available from which to gain some perspective on the future of work.

In this contribution, I will critically reexamine the thesis framing The Second Industrial Divide. This thesis holds that the economic system has reached a branching point in its path of development: the choice involves the attempt, on the one hand, to reconstruct the institutional supports for a reinvigorated system of large-scale global mass production or to adopt, on the other hand, a system of production and distribution premised upon the small-scale associations of producers creating a network of complementary and collectively regulated enterprise units and long-term production relations. …

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