labour processThe process by which products are created by human labour for the satisfaction of human needs. Marx, from whom the term originally derived, outlined (1857) the basic components of the labour process as:
- purposeful activity (work);
- the object on which work is performed;
- the instruments of that work.
Together, these elements of the labour process comprise what Marx called the ‘means of production’, including both the means of appropriating nature and the corresponding social relations of domination, subordination and property ownership in successive epochs of human history (see also HISTORICAL MATERIALISM, MODE OF PRODUCTION, ALIENATION.) Marx concentrated on the development of the capitalist labour process in which labour is subordinate to the capitalist who owns both the means of production and the products of labour. Capitalist production involved a specific social DIVISION OF LABOUR and the extraction of SURPLUS VALUE. Marx distinguished between ‘formal’ and ‘real’ subordination of labour. The former occurred in the early stages of capitalism in which formal ownership of the means of production did not entail direct control of labour in the production process. With the development of the factory system and the decline of traditional handicraft, ‘machinofacture’ entailed real subordination, based upon direct capitalist control of the labour process with increased factory discipline, and the subservience of workers to machines (Littler, 1982). Contemporary interest in the labour process was stimulated by the publication of Braverman's (1974) Labour and Monopoly Capital. Braverman's main argument was that Marx's ‘real subordination of labour’ was only fully realized in the 20th century with the stage of MONOPOLY CAPITALISM. Capitalist control of the labour process was extended by the growth of modern management, and especially Taylorism (see SCIENTIFIC MANAGEMENT). Using evidence from the US, Braverman argued that Taylorism, along with widespread mechanization and computerization of tasks, involved a logic of DESKILLING and work degradation affecting both manual and non-manual workers. Braverman's seminal work on the labour process has been highly influential in the reawakening of interest in labour process theory, and in initiating a shift of orientation in the SOCIOLOGY OF WORK (see also ORGANIZATION THEORY, PROLETARIANIZATION).
Braverman's analysis of the labour process has been criticized and modified on several counts. First, the significance of Taylorism in the labour process is questioned. Comparative research has demonstrated that the influence of Taylorism was uneven and never fully implemented (Littler, op. cit.). This line of criticism has revealed the existence of a variety of managerial strategies of control, some of which do not depend upon straightforward deskilling, but upon workers’ consent and ‘responsible autonomy’. The idea of a logic of deskilling also depends upon questionable historical assumptions about a previous ‘golden age’ of skilled craft work. In addition, empirical research has shown the extent of deskilling to be uneven and coexistent with evidence of job up-grading. This debate reflects the difficulties of defining SKILL. Secondly, Braverman's analysis is criticized for being deterministic, since it ignores workers’ capacity to resist strategies of job degradation, class struggle on the shop floor and the negotiated nature of work organization under capitalism.
Current research on the labour process has therefore substantially modified Braverman's analysis, and investigated the variety of managerial strategies of control, the extent of deskilling and upgrading between different occupations, different sectors of industry, and has taken into account cross-national comparisons (see FORDISM AND POST-FORDISM).