Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Essays on the New Working Class, Serge Mallet

Given the importance I put on the transformation of the labor process, I am ashamed to say that I have never read this book before.  It has been on my shelves for the better part of two years and only now am I getting to it.  Well, it has certainly been worth the wait.  This is an amazing bit of work and confirms and develops what I had already begun to draw out thank to Hans-Dieter Bahr's crucial work.

However, as in all things, timing is everything.  I spent several years trying to decipher Bahr's essay but it was only after finally coming to grips with Moishe Postone's time, Labor, and Social Domination that it clicked in my head.  So too I find myself reading Mallet's book just as I have picked up this brilliant kernel of thought in Jehu's recent essays, noted in the prior post.  Mallet's discussion of the transformation of the labor process, of the production process, makes much more sense if one considers it as the progressive separation of the activity of the individual from the fulfillment of the needs of the individual.  It also goes along with Postone's analysis, where for him the contradiction of capital today expresses itself as the contradiction between the value-form and the imposition of wage-labor as the means to satisfy one's needs, and the amazing capacity to produce material wealth far beyond what capital can valorize.  The way Mallet poses the problem has implicit in it a notion of a change in the actuality of the class relation, or the class antagonism.  This is then reinforced by Jehu's expression of the class antagonism: "The antagonism between the needs of the worker and her activity cannot be overcome" within capital.  The contradiction finds it expression in the fact that worker exists in the class relation as "variable capital", but is also a person in need of reproducing herself.  Mallet gives detailed expression to the progressive disconnection of the worker's activity from his own existence in the labor process.

He does point to how for a certain layer, there is a re-skilling due to the production of the means of production by the direct application of science and the technical requirements of those who maintain this means, but there is also the gap between this layer and those who use the means to perform the task.  He discusses this progressive reduction of the production worker to an 'operator' or 'supervisor' (in English the more common idea would be of a machine 'tender' since 'supervisor' has other connotations.)

The current tendency of the subjectivization of labor, which involves the identification of the worker with the determination of what kind of work they ought to be doing expresses part of the contradiction this creates.  The manager no longer provides the plan or exactly tells the worker what to do.  The technical worker is expected to themselves define what they ought to be doing.  While there is an element of horror in this process, where the worker is expected to self-identify as self-managed or even self-employed, it would also seem to indicate the increasing irrelevance of management outside of dealing with the hierarchy of power (at that point, a wholly incestuous task), determining the budget for different areas to maximize profits, and to hire and fire, that is, to enforce labor discipline.  In response the worker feels to no small degree that they have to work at cross-purposes to the incompetence and cupidity of management.  The exemplary cultural artifact of this conflict is the comic strip Dilbert.

Overall, I feel that the critique of value has got to be brought into contact with the conceptualization of the labor process if it is to escape the scholastic dead-end of miserable battles over price and crisis, that is, it has to escape from the confines of "economics".  Bahr, Mallet, Gorz, Linhart, and a host of other works are necessary material for the revival of critical theory, just as these by themselves become mere sociology without the critique of the value-form and labor.

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