Magazine article Monthly Review

Beyond the Degradation of Labor: Braverman and the Structure of the U.S. Working Class

Magazine article Monthly Review

Beyond the Degradation of Labor: Braverman and the Structure of the U.S. Working Class

Article excerpt

Harry Braverman's Labor and Monopoly Capital, first published forty years ago in 1974, was unquestionably the work that, in the words of historian Bryan Palmer, "literally christened the emerging field of labor process studies."1 In the four decades since its appearance Braverman's book has continued to play a central role in debates on workers' struggles within industry, remaining indispensable to all attempts at in-depth critique in this area. On Labor Day 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession, the Wall Street Journal declared Laborand Monopoly Capital to be number one among the "Five Best Books on Working."2

This continuing relevance of Braverman's analysis has to do with the fact that his overall vision of the transformations taking place in modem work relations was much wider than has usually been recognized.3 Viewed from a wide camera angle, his work sought to capture the complex relation between the labor process on the one hand, and the changing structure and composition of the working class and its reserve armies on the other. This broad view allowed him to perceive how the changes in the labor process were integrally connected to the emergence of whole new spheres of production, the decomposition and recomposition of the working class in various sectors, and the development of new structural contradictions.

This larger context of Braverman's work was evident in the opening paragraph of Laborand Monopoly Capital:

This book first took shape in my mind as little more than a study of occupational shifts in the United States. I was interested in the structure of the working class, and the manner in which it has changed. That portion of the population employed in manufacturing and associated industries-the so-called industrial working class-had apparently been shrinking for some time, if not in absolute numbers at any rate in relative terms. Since the details of this process, especially its historical turning points and the shape of the new employment that was taking the place of the old, were not clear to me, I undertook to find out more about them. And since, as I soon discovered, these things had not yet been clarified in any comprehensive fashion, I decided that there was a need for a more substantial historical description and analysis of the process of occupational change than had yet been presented in print.4

Braverman followed up this statement with a discussion of how this led him to the analysis of the labor process, which was then to become the predominant subject of Labor and Monopoly Capital and for which he is principally famous. But there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that he saw this as merely a necessary step in a much more comprehensive analysis of the structure and process of the U.S. working class, serving to delineate it in an objective way and allowing one to understand the material changes and radical new possibilities that were emerging. This was indicated by the structure of his book itself. Parts I and II of the book addressed, respectively, "Labor and Management" and "Science and Mechanization" and were concerned with the theory of the labor process and of scientific management. Parts III, IV, and V, entitled "Monopoly Capital," "The Growing Working-Class Occupations," and "The Working Class," were focused on the changes in the structure and composition of the working class in late-twentieth-century monopoly capitalism. Part IV was devoted specifically to the rise of clerical work and service occupations and retail trade. The key chapter in Part V was entitled "The Structure of the Working Class and Its Reserve Armies." For Braverman much of the importance of the labor process argument was that it provided the basis for a clearer conception of the formation of new working-class relations and occupations, charting the future of the class.

The interpretation that Braverman was concerned overall with developing a systematic conception of the U.S. working class-in which the evolving labor process and changing structure of the working class and its reserve armies were seen as together constituting interconnected parts of a complex, dialectical whole-finds further support in the pre-publication of parts of Labor and Monopoly Capital in the special July-August 1974 issue of Monthly Review. …

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