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Harry Braverman [1920-1976]
Harry Braverman on the Working Class
By Frank W. Elwell
The process of turning workers into commodities is continually being extended into more areas of the economy. Further, each succeeding generation has to be acclimated to the new mode of work; each has to be socialized to overcome the initial revulsion to the ever more detailed division of labor, the consequent rending of human beings. This ever-widening process, Braverman claims, becomes a permanent feature of capitalist society. Laborers are increasingly seen as machines, machines that can be readily adapted to the requirements of most any job. This view of man as a machine, Braverman says, has become more than a mere analogy. For the capitalist class, the laborer as machine is how the class has come to use labor, it is how it has come to view humanity. The process leads to the polarization of American society, Braverman claims, with a few at the top of the hierarchy having tremendous power, wealth, and control and the great mass of workers at the bottom, with few skills, resources, or prospects.
To demonstrate this polarization Braverman performs an analysis of census data to determine the size of the working classes throughout the 2oth century. The working class, he says, consists of those who come to the labor market with nothing to sell but their labor. This labor is systematically exploited and degraded by the capitalist system. To enable growth in profit businesses break skills down to simple tasks, automate where economically feasible, and manipulate the speed of production. These processes do not just occur in manufacturing operations, Braverman adds, but throughout the capitalist economy.
Working Class (in millions)
The number of service workers rose from 1 million at the turn of the century to some 9 million by the 1970 census. While there are a couple of occupations in this grouping that require some educational credentials and extensive on the job training, most are low skill, low pay, and often temporary. To this group Braverman adds retail sales workers and cashiers, people with the same skills and compensation as the majority of service workers. By 1970, Braverman reports, there were a total of 3 million such workers.
So, the percentage of the workforce engaged in essentially rote manual labor, with little skill, educational requirements, autonomy, or decent compensation has been growing each decade from the turn of the century through 1970, then comprising almost 70% of the working population. Work in the American economy has become very polarized, with a few people having all of the technical expertise and managerial control over a largely unskilled and uneducated workforce.
For an update I used Braverman’s classification scheme to examine the size of the working class since the 1970. This table again presents Braverman’s breakdown of occupational classifications with the addition of the years 1983 and 2001.
Working Class (in millions)
It would appear that the proportional decline is due to the relatively slow growth in the number of manufacturing jobs in America. These manufacturing jobs have been slow growing due to automation and international trade in which many goods now come from other countries, and many low skilled American manufacturing jobs have been exported or “outsourced.” Compared to manufacturing, it is far more difficult to automate or export most personal service work. And this is what accounts for much of our legal and illegal immigration. If you cannot have the services provided from cheaper overseas labor markets, another option is to import cheaper foreign laborers.
Clerical work stands somewhat intermediate between manufacturing and service occupations. The personal computer has made it relatively inexpensive to automate typing and filing services even in small offices. While some of these jobs can be shipped overseas, cultural differences prevent too much off shoring such occupations.
So, for the first 70 years of the 20th century Braverman found that the percentage of the American workforce engaged in essentially rote manual and clerical occupations, with little skill, educational requirements, autonomy, or decent compensation has been growing each decade. However, this trend has been halted and reversed in the latter third of the century. Though it should be pointed out that even today the working class is still a majority of the employed population in hyperindustrial society, the trend now seems to be in the opposite direction. How far this trend can go is open to question.
Can an industrial society exist without a significant portion of the working population engaged in rote manual or clerical labor? Is a capitalist- industrial society even possible without the bulk of the people engaged in the detailed division of labor—isn’t such a society defined by this very division? The bulk of the growth in U.S. jobs since Braverman is mainly attributable to the rapid growth of “Managerial and Professional Specialty” occupations. Braverman estimates that by 1970 some 20 percent of the workforce was engaged in lower levels of management and professional specialties. By 1983, these occupations accounted for some 23 million of the employed, or 23% of the population. By 2001 these occupations had ballooned to 31% of the employed population. Add to this the Technical and Sales Occupations (non-retail and non-clerical) and the figures go up to 39% of all employment for 2001. Clearly this middle level of employment has grown dramatically since Braverman’s time. Within this broad category the fastest growth was experienced among “Executive, administrative, and managerial” occupations (EAM). EAM grew from 11 percent of the workforce in 1983 to 15% in 2001. Braverman would attribute this growth as further evidence of centralization of coordination and control.
The “Professional Specialty” categories grew from 13 percent of the total workforce in 1983 to 16 percent in 2001. About half of this category is from education and medicine. In all, Braverman estimated that only 3% of the 1970 workforce consisted of technical specialists such as engineers, architects, draftsmen, designers, and natural scientists. In 1983 this had grown to only 3.5% of the workforce in 1983, and to 4.7% in 2001. Interestingly, computer scientists accounted for the bulk of this growth, a technical expertise almost unknown in the 1970 census. Excluding their numbers the concentration of technical expertise for both 1983 and 2001 is at Braverman’s estimate of about 3% of the labor force.
The workforce of hyperindustrial society is not completely congruent with that of the industrial society analyzed by Braverman. As is necessary for a more complex technological infrastructure and a more bureaucratic structure, there are a higher proportion of executives, managers, and professionals in the workforce. Some of these positions, no doubt, are given high degrees of latitude and freedom, some are highly paid and prestigious as well. However, contrary to the postindustrial dreamers, these elite do not (nor can they ever) make up the bulk of the society. Nor are most of them a part of the elite, as Mills described in White Collar, they are very much dependent upon the bureaucratic organizations of private industry, nongovernmental agencies, and governments.
The economy as a whole still depends on a large working class population both domestically and increasingly on a global scale. The bulk of these jobs are unskilled or semi-skilled occupations, and increasing proportion of them in the U.S. are in sales and personal services. Because our economic and political system is dominated by capitalism, the entire sociocultural system is organized around the need to expand capital. It is this drive that is behind the ever more detailed division of labor, the adoption of computers and other technologies to replace workers, immigration and off shoring, the degradation of work and workers, and the polarization within and between societies.
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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©2013 Frank Elwell, Send comments to felwell at rsu.edu