SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 92 - June 2005

The Class Politics of Office Technology

Windows on the Workplace: computers, jobs and the organization of office work

By Joan Greenbaum

Monthly Review Press, 2004, £12-00

Reviewed by

Michael Fisher

IN 1911, Frederick Taylor, an American engineer and management consultant, published his Principles of Scientific Management. Drawing on his observations and interviews with workers at a number of manufacturing plants, Taylor argued that the complexity and variety of the mental and manual tasks that skilled shop-floor workers performed in their work meant it was difficult for managers to quantify precisely how they were making use of their paid labour-time, and if they were working to their full capacity. Furthermore, because such workers typically took years to train, and were relatively scarce on the external labour market, it was often difficult for managers to sack militant skilled workers and substitute them quickly with more compliant new recruits capable of performing work to the required standard.

To maximise management control as a means of increasing the productivity and substitutability of labour, Taylor proposed that jobs should be re-designed on the basis of his ‘principles of scientific management’. To make the work of skilled labour easier for management to discipline and quantify Taylor proposed that each complex job should be broken up into a number of jobs comprising simple tasks, and that the conceptual aspects of work should be removed from the shop-floor and made the exclusive preserve of management and a specialist planning department. In addition, he argued that these principles of work organisation should be combined with a system of payment where wage levels would be determined by individual performance.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War One, some of the aims and methods of ‘scientific management’ were adopted and developed by Henry Ford at the Ford Motor Company. While the Taylorist fragmentation of work held the potential to expose workers to greater discipline and control, sustaining an increased pace of ‘Taylorised’ work could require expensive and time-consuming supervision of individual workers by teams of managers. At his new vehicle production facility in Michigan, Henry Ford extended the logic of Taylor’s principles by organising fragmented tasks around an assembly line. Not only was work rendered more ‘simple’ and routine, but the pace at which it was performed would now be determined by the discipline of working within a highly integrated and automated production process.

The class content and political implications of Taylorism and Fordism were clear. Their methods of work organisation were intended to increase the subordination of relatively powerful groups of workers to capital by enhancing managerial prerogative, intensifying work, rendering workers more vulnerable to being replaced, and countering collectivism with competitive individualism. Furthermore, Taylor argued that by making factory work more simple and routine, and so less intellectually demanding, the application of his ideas would contribute to the development of a class of workers "of smaller calibre and attainments… of the type of the ox". For Taylor, and his fellow thinkers, what was at stake was not just the productivity of labour, but the ability of capitalism to undermine the political self-confidence and capacities of the working class.

For much of the twentieth century it was manufacturing industry that the managerial and political advocates of Taylorism and Fordism tended to focus their attention on. However, in recent decades that focus has widened to include many forms of white-collar work, particularly the work of those employed in financial services such as banking and insurance and, more recently, the work of civil and public servants. This raises a number of important questions. Why, how and to what effect are Taylorist and Fordist principles being pursued in many office workplaces today? Can the application of these principles be stopped? What political alternative should those whose work is threatened struggle for?

These are the questions that Joan Greenbaum attempts to answer in her book, Windows on the Workplace. Greenbaum has three aims. Firstly, to report the main trends in the re-organisation of office work in post-war America, with a particular focus on how corporate management have used information technology to deskill, devalue and intensify the work of many thousands of office workers. Secondly, to critique ‘technological determinism’ and ‘technological utopianism’: the views, common across the popular media and on the political right, that the course of history is determined by technology, and that new technology will eventually deliver high-skill and high income jobs for nearly everyone. And thirdly, to argue that it is possible to resist the degradation of jobs and to struggle for an alternative way of living and working.

The strongest parts of Greenbaum’s book are those that detail the uneven and uncertain attempts by corporate managers in the post war period to find ways of reducing the numbers, cost and workplace autonomy of their office staff. While management experimented with new ways of dividing and simplifying office work in the 1950s and 1960s, it was the end of post-war growth in the 1970s that marked the beginning of more concerted attempts by many corporations to develop radically new ways of reducing costs and increasing productivity. And yet, far from being driven by technology, during the 1970s and early-1980s new computing and communication technologies played a limited role in these attempts. Many corporate managers were ambivalent about the ability of such technologies to substantially increase output and profitability. In particular, many technical systems were incompatible with each other, inhibiting the dispersal of work within and between companies, and nearly all were too crude to replicate the complex mental and manual tasks that millions of office workers continued to perform.

It was not until the late-1980s that computing began to render elemental changes to the organisation of office work on a significant scale. The costs of hardware and software fell rapidly. For the first time individual computer terminals began to appear on nearly every desktop. Standardised and compatible software systems became more common. More available and reliable satellite technologies facilitated the further integration of systems, and the greater flow of money and information across and between nations and continents. As a consequence, jobs, or pieces of jobs, have become more mobile. The technical infrastructure now exists for some work to be relocated across borders and continents to different countries. But, as Greenbaum points out, the shift to ‘off shoring’ no longer affects only ‘simple’ jobs like processing data from paper onto computers. Recent years have seen aspects of design, accounting and architectural work relocated from North America to parts of Latin America and Asia.

For many workers, the impact of such technological changes over the past two decades has been devastating. Since the early 1990s, thousands of workers in sectors like banking and insurance have lost their jobs. Where jobs have remained in place, the threat of being replaced by computers, or of having their jobs moved to another country, has often been used by managers to cultivate an atmosphere of insecurity, uncertainty and fear among workers. Some jobs, like those relating to customer service, have been reorganised into call centres, with thousands of workers having almost every minute of their working day measured and monitored by computerised ‘management information systems’. Many call centres stand as a stark example of how office technologies have been used to apply Taylorist and Fordist principles to office work. Call centre work often has its origins in jobs where workers previously dealt with telephone calls in addition to a range of other tasks. Following Taylor, in order to increase productivity these jobs are fragmented, and call-related work is separated out and placed into a call centre. Following Ford, in order to ensure that workers then perform the maximum amount of work, automated systems feed them a continuous ‘assembly line’ of calls.

In short, far from delivering a high-skill, high-wage and high-fulfilment workplace, in many offices new computing and information technologies have resulted in fewer workers doing more work, often for lower pay than their predecessors, and in a context where many fear for their future. In opposition to technological determinist interpretations of change, Greenbaum’s account of the degradation and intensification of office work in post-war America makes clear that what has driven these processes has not been ‘technology’, but the imperative in all capitalist economies to increase profitability by cutting costs and increasing productivity. Developing new technology is one means of attempting to achieve these aims, but is not the origin of the imperative to do so. Within capitalism the primary imperative is to maximise profit, and the source of profit lies not in machinery, but in how labour power is organised and exploited.

While Greenbaum’s account of workplace change contributes to the critique of technological determinism, her critique remains underdeveloped. From a Marxist perspective, there is more to be said about and against technological determinism than pointing out that technological change is the product of capitalist accumulation rather than its cause. There remains the question of why many people, not all of them capitalists and senior corporate managers, regard technology as the primary source of social and economic change.

The explanation for the prevalence of technological determinist ideas under capitalism can be found in Marx’s critique of bourgeois economics. A defining assumption of capitalist economic theory, then as now, is that the exchange of wages for labour power is one of equivalence. As Marx put it: "All labour appears as paid labour". It follows that if labour is fully rewarded for its contribution to production, then profit must originate not from workers, but from other people (such as capitalists) or from ‘things’ (such as technology). However, Marx argued that the exchange of wages for labour power was far from being an exchange of equivalents. Once employed, the capitalist or corporate manager, partly by means of applying Taylorist and Fordist methods of work organisation, seeks to extract value from workers in excess of that embodied in their wages. Ultimately, this surplus assumes the form of money and profit, and it is the pursuit and accumulation of both that drives the reproduction and crises of capitalism. Therefore, the power of capital is fundamentally nothing more than the productive power of collective labour abstracted from workers and presented back to them in the form of ‘things’, such as money, machinery and technology. However, because the relationship between the productive power of collective labour and that of capital is not an immediate and obvious one, to many it appears that they are entirely distinct, and that the latter does or should dominate the former. According to Marx:

"The transposition of the social productivity of labour into the material attributes of capital is so firmly entrenched in people’s minds that the advantages of machinery, the use of science, invention, etc are necessarily conceived in its alienated form, so that all these things are deemed to be the attributes of capital".

Bourgeois political economy takes the ‘alienated forms’ of social labour for granted, so assuming that the social power objects exert under capitalism is founded in their material properties. However, material objects, such as new technology, only exert power over people when inserted within historically specific social relations of production. Under capitalism, it is the separation of workers from the means of production that makes possible the commodification and exploitation of labour power, and the transference of their productive power to others and to objects in the form of surplus value.

The view that historical development is ultimately driven by technology is therefore a specific ideological product of capitalism, founded in the failure to distinguish between concrete and value-producing labour. However, once this distinction is made, certain political conclusions logically follow. If the power of technology to degrade, deskill and devalue work under capitalism has its foundations in the separation of labour from the means of production and subsistence, then the struggle against the negative consequences of technology must necessarily form part of a broader struggle against that separation. Only by overthrowing capitalism, and then socialising production, does it become possible to organise production in democratic and socially conscious ways that reduce the burden of work, allow for the more flexible and fulfilling design and allocation of jobs, and distribute the aggregate product of labour in accordance with the democratically expressed wishes of society rather than the dictatorship of private profit.

For Marx, the need for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with socialism is a need that flows logically and unavoidably from his analysis of capital. But Greenbaum stops short of drawing such clear political conclusions. Despite asserting that the processes and trends she identifies have their foundation in the broader system-wide logic of capitalism, she avoids any mention of the need to overthrow capitalism, or of the desirability of socialism. Instead, she calls for "new forms of organisation" that should operate "within a framework that rebalances the power of workers against the growing power of employers".

In support of these calls, Greenbaum makes vague references to already existing ‘alternatives’ in Europe. The implication is that the post-war traditions of social corporatism and dialogue in parts of Europe should be a model for the US labour movement. Yet it is telling that she does not examine recent trends in the restructuring of work and employment across Europe in any detail. If she had done, then it would have been difficult to present the situation in Europe as much of an ‘alternative’.

In the UK, for example, recent research has shown that since the 1980s not only has the work of many become much more intense and stressful, but the extent of ‘task discretion’ (the degree of initiative that workers can exercise over their immediate work tasks) has decreased significantly in both private and public sector workplaces.

The increasing intensification of labour, combined with decreasing workplace autonomy, suggests that aspects of Taylorist and Fordist methods of work organisation are becoming increasingly common within UK workplaces. In Germany, the oft cited home of social partnership, unemployment is now in excess of five million, with Chancellor Schroder intent on cutting unemployment benefits, reducing the availability of health services, and changing the law to make it easier for employers to make workers redundant. Against this background, Germany’s largest bank, Deutsche Bank, has recently announced that a total of 6,400 jobs will be cut, with a further 1,200 jobs relocated to low wage countries. In recent years many more thousands of jobs have been lost in German banks such as Commerzbank, Dresdner Bank and Hypovereinsbank. Such attacks on the level, value and location of employment are becoming increasingly common across Europe.

Greenbaum’s invocation of Europe as a progressive alternative to the situation confronting millions of US workers is misinformed and politically misleading. This is a pity. Had she combined her useful account of how office work is being restructured with a clear vision of a meaningful political alternative to the forces that are driving this restructuring, her book may have helped to rally some of the workers and students who will read it to socialist politics. By failing to do so she is effectively urging workers to struggle against the negative impacts of technology while leaving the social relations that endow these technologies with their capitalistic force and logic intact. That would be a deeply unequal fight. The millions of office workers around the world currently facing the deskilling, intensification and relocation of their work deserve better.

Windows on the Workplace is available from Socialist Books


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