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Harry Braverman [1920-1976]
Harry Braverman on the Detailed Division of Labor
By Frank W. Elwell
In 1974 Harry Braverman published Labor and Monopoly Capitalism, an analysis of the impact of capitalism on work in twentieth century America. Using the concepts and theories developed by Marx in the first volume of Capital, Braverman’s book was a biting critique of the growing degradation of work in America. A large part of Braverman’s argument centered on the “deskilling” of jobs in a capitalist economy in a systematic effort to more efficiently control and coordinate the labor force to maximize profit. Braverman’s problem—a study of the objective conditions of the working class—is identical to the task Marx set for himself in the first volume of Capital. The value of Braverman’s work is that it applies Marx’s analysis to American society in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century and, further, renders Marx truly accessible to a modern audience. It is a very successful work on both counts.
The value of all goods and services (all commodity value) is created by human labor. Capitalism is a system built around the drive to increase capital. In order to expand his capital, the capitalist invests in the purchase of labor. The capitalist then attempts to get more value out of this labor than he has invested in it. The more surplus the capitalist can expropriate from the workforce, the greater the profitability, the greater the accumulation of capital. For the purchase and sale of labor power to become widespread in a society, three conditions need to be met:
Historically, one of the pools of newly created labor power was the peasantry. Various land reforms and technological innovations moved peasants off the land in Western Europe. To survive, they had to turn to new industrial production. This process is almost complete in hyperindustrial societies but is in the beginning stages in the Global South. Freeing from slavery or serfdom separates individuals from their traditional means of livelihood. It also means they enter the labor market with nothing to exchange except physical labor.
To make a profit, the capitalist must employ human labor to create value in commodities. This happens in a big way with the rise of industrial capitalism in the latter half of the eighteenth century. With the establishment of a labor market the worker enters into employment because there are few other options to make a living. The capitalist enters into the relationship to make a profit. And that is the heart of it. The working life of the vast majority in capitalist society is dominated and shaped by the needs and interests of the capitalist class. Primary among these interests is to expand capital, to maximize profit. It is this “aspect which dominates in the mind and activities of the capitalist, into whose hands the control over the labor process has passed.”
All management has the problems of coordinating supplies, scheduling, work assignments, records, payroll, sales, and accounting. Also, with the rise of more complex production processes, the need for managerial coordination increases. The capitalist problem of management is different in kind, however, in that the capitalist is working with “free” labor, in a system of constantly expanding technology, and spurred on by a driving need to expand production and profitability. The capitalist problem of management is rooted in the buying and selling of labor. “What the worker sells, and what the capitalist buys, is not an agreed amount of labor, but the labor over an agreed period of time.”
“Such labor represents a cost for each non-productive hour. Workers have an interest in conserving energy, capitalists in expending it. There is, therefore, a fundamental antagonism between worker and capitalist, between those who manage and those who execute, those who bring to the factory their labor power, and those who undertake to extract from this labor power the maximum advantage for the capitalist.”
While early capitalism used outright force and coercion to attain this maximum advantage, management must now exercise more subtle methods of control. How then do capitalists expand their capital through a “free” labor force? What are the foundations of monopoly capitalism?
The earliest and perhaps most important principle of the capitalist mode of
production, Braverman states, was the detailed division of labor. The social
division of labor, or the breakdown of the social labor on the basis of craft
specialization, has existed in all known societies. This social division of
labor is an important factor in determining the rate of technological
development, the extent of stratification and inequality, and the degree for
sociocultural solidarity and cohesion. The detailed division of labor, on the
other hand, is a very different phenomenon. The detailed division of labor
breaks the manufacturing of a product down into simple discrete steps, and then
assigns each task to an individual workman.
One man draws out the wire, another straightens it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving, the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some factories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them.
In traditional manufacture, with each man performing all the steps, they would be hard pressed to produce 20 in a day. As described by Smith, the task of making a pin was broken down to eighteen distinct operations, which were all performed by distinct hands. Smith goes on to point out that he had observed small factories of some 10 men who, engaged in the detailed division of labor, could produce some 48,000 pins a day. This would amount to some 4,800 pins for each man, a significant increase in productivity.
The increase in productivity caused by the detailed division of labor, Smith surmises, is due to three independent factors:
• Increase of dexterity in performing a simple operation repeatedly;
• Saving of time that is generally lost in passing from one type of work to another;
• Invention of machines to assist in performing simple tasks.
The more the manufacturing process can be broken up into simple, discreet tasks, and the more of these tasks that can be assigned to separate workmen, the greater the resulting productivity.
The problem for the worker is not with the first factor listed by Smith. The breakdown of work into detailed tasks is something that workmen often willingly does to suit his own needs. Rarely, however, will the workman take the next step on his own, that is, rarely will he voluntarily become a lifelong detail worker. Such a work role calls for the endless repetition of performing a simple task. However, the capitalist has no problem in taking the second step by assigning the individual tasks to separate workers. The fact that the resulting jobs are mind numbing, devoid of variety, human initiative and thought, and any sort of skill save, perhaps, manual dexterity does not enter into the equation.
Further, the detailed division of labor increases the capitalists’ control over the labor process. By dividing the work up in such detail, the manager takes more direct control over the process and pace of work. Also, by specializing in a single task, the detail worker becomes “unskilled” labor. He is coming to the labor market without any distinctive skills to offer, in accordance with the laws of supply and demand, his labor is interchangeable with a multitude of others. Consequently, there is little incentive for the capitalist to offer more than the regional rate for such labor, little leverage that the unskilled laborer can use in trying to increase his wage.
The detailed division of labor has organized the labor market according to the interests of the purchasers of labor power, not the sellers. It significantly boosts productivity, lowers wages, and greatly extends the capitalists’ control over the pace and process of labor. The detailed division of labor underlies all relations between capitalists and labor. Under capitalism, labor becomes a commodity to be sold on the market. In fact, labor power is the only commodity that the worker has to exchange for necessary goods and services. Even today the process continues in areas far removed from manufacturing. Jobs are continually broken up into simple tasks. Special skills, knowledge, and control are reserved for those at the top of the hierarchy.
Braverman goes so far as to call this the “general law of the capitalist division of labor.” Its impact is not only shaping our working lives, but the character of the entire sociocultural system. for this process polarizes capitalist society into a small powerful elite at the top, and a mass of simple labor at the bottom. The heart of Marx’s critique of capitalism beats in his analysis of the effect of the capitalist mode of production on the working class. Braverman carries on this tradition. Under capitalism, workers become a “labor force,” just another factor of production, another commodity to be purchased. Controlling costs, maximizing productivity, and amassing more capital is the overriding goal of the enterprise. To do this the capitalist class has created jobs that use men and women in inhumane ways, separating their labor power from their critical facilities. That the process is repugnant to the workers is apparent from the high absentee rates, widespread job dissatisfaction, early retirements, and alienation. The thrust of the critique, however, does not rely upon such indicators but rather on the objective conditions of work itself. Real skill replaced by manual dexterity, conception and thought is removed from execution, control of action and pace is removed from the worker and placed in management.
For a more extensive discussion of Braverman’s theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell. Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a fuller understanding of modern societies.
Braverman, H. (1974/1998). Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Elwell, F. W. 2009. Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.
Elwell, F. W. 2006. Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.
Elwell, F. W. 2013. Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.
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Elwell, Frank W., 2013, "Harry Braverman on the Detailed Division of Labor," Retrieved August 31, 2013, [use actual date] http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/~felwell/Theorists/Essays/Braverman1.htm
©2013 Frank Elwell, Send comments to felwell at rsu.edu