Notes on Labor and Monopoly Capital

I committed the last month or so to reading Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital, a Marxist assessment on the constitution of the modern working class, and I want turn it to account somehow. The first half of the book provides a trenchant account of Taylor’s principles of scientific management, arguing that under the guise of “rationalizing” the work place, management merely deprives workers of their craft knowledge and turns them into (ultimately) reserve armies of generalized labor, capable of only the simplest, most repetitive tasks for the smallest wage. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where “rational” was more of a dirty word. You can almost hear Braverman’s contempt everytime he writes it, it seems to call down phantom quotes of derision around it, such a mockery it is of what is actually human. Rationality, rather than being a supreme quality of human thought, is, under capitalism, basically humanity’s antithesis, it’s a weapon that undermines social cooperation, a synonym for exploitation, a tool one class uses to dehumanize another and turn them into robots, whose every move in the work place is prescribed. The point may be that capitalism always inverts the nature of things, so that what is supremely irrational comes to seem perfectly rational. At stake for Braverman is preserving Marx’s law proposing that the more capital accumulates, the more generalized social misery there is. Post WWII, when the consumer society kicked in to full gear, cheap goods expanded the working class’s access to what were once class-inflected luxuries, (see America’s alleged triumph in Nixon’s “kitchen debate” with Khrushchev) and though their spending power was not proportional to that of the upper classes, there was a pervasive sense that all boats were being raised by prosperity. But Braverman points out that the fallacy about prosperity, which has nothing to do with happiness and everything to do with profits, which are, of course, distributed unequally.

In the second half, Braverman tries to refute the notion that the working class is somehow shrinking with alleged prosperity, arguing that clerical workers are glorified proles, no different than assembly-line workers. This seems beyond dispute now, with whatever specialized skill an office worker might once have possessed displaced to computers. We might be tempted then to blame computers for widespread anomie, the way machines were blamed for the misery their introduction induced.

But Braverman insists that technology is neutral util it’s placed into social relations that use it to enable broader exploitation. (Alternative social relations would use machines not for profit but for social welfare. The Internet, when it first went mainstream, made such promise more palpable; some claimed that it would restructure social relations in and of itself, which goes against Braverman’s argument, by leading to open-source research and information sharing, by leading to universal distribution of the fruits of cultural production, ie, free downloads for all.)

The sci-fi in which the machines are out to get humanity (The Terminator, The Matrix, etc.) reflect this mistake that the machines are out to get us, and perpetuate it. This is one of culture’s functions, masking the true identity of the exploiters, so that the exploited blame machines (or, more typically, themselves) and not their owners. This masks also that lost potential of machines to liberate workers rather than stupefy them, that road not taken. The malevolence of machines comes to seem inevitable –“it was only a matter of time before the machines became sentient….”

Also of note: Capitalism’s need to replace autonomous demand with induced demand, so that it suits production schedules. It’s not enough for ads to get you to want certain things — the timing is as important, if not moreso. Ads aren’t simply about creating demand; it’s about conforming existing demand to production schedules; to get you to want things at the right times, when surpluses exist, when styles are most likely to shift, etc. This is the logic behing the timing of sales, as well.

And this seemed to me a pretty concise way of summing up the market’s antagonism to human relations, the way society pits men against each other, so that their exchanges take on the rationalized, exploitative character of the market, the every-man-for-himself ethos it predicates: “The social structure, built upon the market, is such that relations between individuals and social groups do not take place directly, as cooperative human encounters, but through the market as relations of purchase and sale. Thus the more social life becomes a dense and close network of interlocked activities in which people are totally interdependent, the more atomized they become and the more their contacts with one another separate them instead of bringing them closer.” Because every encounter is experienced as zero-sum, as having a winner and a loser, the more we interact, the more friction we feel, the more resentful we become. Thus the ability to avoid interaction with other people comes to seem like a benefit, a utility, a convenience. Thus all conveniences are generally aimed at minimizing the face-to-face contact you must make with others while by and large making you more available to be used by your employers (cell phones, et cetera). I like this because it lessens the mindtwisting I was willing to ascribe to ideology in turning people to convenience and away from social interactions that are the empirically proven bases for happiness. This explanation shows how personal interactions can come to be objectively unpleasant.

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