Capital and the Labour Process

Paul Thompson, Chris Smith

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Readings of Capital are never innocent let alone uncontentious. Currently making conceptual and political waves are theories of cognitive capitalism. based on claims that ‘material production’ is no longer a source of value, that labour time is not a significant object of interest for employers and that the real subordination of labour is reversed (Vercellone, 2007; Moulier Boutang, 2012, Hardt and Negri, 2000, 2009). Located in the post-operaismo tradition, such commentators prefer to focus on Marx’s ‘Fragment on Machines’ from The Grundrisse as a blueprint for an end to scarcity and an imminent transition to postcapitalism or communism depending on the degree of optimism (Pitts 2016). These arguments have received a considerable boost with their popularisation by Paul Mason. He argues that whilst Capital was an historic achievement full of brilliant insights, it is in essence history. ‘Info goods’ are corroding value and labour is no longer the ultimate source of profit. Info capitalism is strangled by its own contradictions; hence postcapitalism will be born on a tide of networked, collaborative zero cost production. One perceived consequence is that antagonism is displaced from the labour process and employment relationship and ‘the class struggle in cognitive capitalism increasingly takes the form of a distribution struggle’ (Jeon, 2010: 19). In slightly different terms, politics shifts from the factory to the social factory, radical demands focusing on a universal basic income and full automation replacing the ‘drudgery’ of wage labour (Mason, 2016; Srniceck and Williams, 2015).
In this article we make a partial defence of the relevance of Marx’s writings on the labour process in Capital and the privileging of that terrain for understanding of contemporary economies, though not necessarily for other social relations. Nothing written a century and a half ago can be entirely timely, for example with respect to the growth of complex managerial and employment systems. However, the tools of analysis of capital-labour relations in the production process and contested terrain around control, science, technology and effort remain a vital source for critical researchers if they are prepared to simultaneously apply and innovate. In the rest of the article we explain how this task was undertaken by Braverman, subsequent labour process theory and research community with which we are associated. We argue that these efforts broadened conceptions of managerial regimes and restored a focus on labour agency, whilst at the same time utilised – with benefits and limitations – a ‘narrow’ reading of Capital in that it focused on the transformation of the labour process within different accumulation regimes. The second half of article is taken up by an exposition and critique of current claims that production and the labour process is no longer a significant site for the creation of value and for labour-capital contradictions. Capital remains a better guide to analysis and action in the present conjuncture than ‘The Fragment on Machines’.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationReading ‘Capital’ Today
EditorsIngo Schmidt , Carlo Fanelli
Place of PublicationUK
PublisherPluto Press
Number of pages29
ISBN (Print)9780745399737
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2017

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