Capitalism transforms itself in order to control crises and instability and in order to secure the functioning of market mechanisms, and these transformations involve all functions of society, institutions, property, work and the different forms of wealth.
Capitalist economies are dynamic systems which launch structural reforms and innovations and in which history is being made. Present-day capitalism – which we call knowledge-ability-capitalism because it tends to make use of those general human capacities involved in knowledge, interaction and communication – is about the transmission of “information” and investments in the producers of knowledge and their education, health and culture, as the economist Robert Boyer has suggested in his book The Future of Economic Growth.
Each of the stages of capitalism can be seen as having a subject that is differently constituted or produced on the basis of its relation to the mode of production of wealth and to the production organizations, and it conditions the existence for left politics – the subject is that worker whose position in the organisation of production is essential (not coincidental or marginal) in terms of the functioning of capitalism and accumulation of capital, and in whom the core of labour is crystallized within the contradiction between capital and labour. Thus, for example, before Fordism and the Taylorist organization of production, the key position was held by a worker who had suitable knowledge and in whose work the different stages of labour were present. There, the worker’s appropriate knowledge and personal experience made him a master who worked in a workshop. In the relationship between human and machine, it was the human who held the key position in which the worker’s skill, his personal ability, was crucial to the outcome.
On the other hand, industrial Taylorist production organization dismembers the master’s skill and creates a mass worker who works in a factory and has to adjust to the pace of the assembly line and from whose work the worker’s personal knowledge has been rooted out as completely as possible.
In knowledge-ability-capitalism which prevails now in the North the worker who is most essential to production can be called an information worker who works in “projects” and has to adjust to the constant change of tasks, offices, times and workmates. By “information worker” we do not mean workers who have had a specialized education, or particularly learned workers, but workers who have to use their rudimentary information skills, to talk, to listen, to watch, to read and maybe write a little rather than expend physical energy.
In our view, one of the crucial problems of the left is its inability to examine these changes. Instead, it has opposed the mass worker to the knowledge worker and seen in the former the unchanging basis for its own politics. This has been especially clear in the antagonism between regular and precarious work.
Taylorism increased the productivity of work through division of labour at the same time as it increased the size of factories in order to benefit from economies of scale. Production was concentrated in large companies and the growth in (factory workers’) employment corresponded to the growth in production. Continuous payment of wages was a crucial component of Taylorism, which guaranteed the availability and constancy of the labour force – labour-intensive large-scale industries could not rely on daily wages and occasional labour. Strict hierarchies and discipline prevailed in workplaces as well as a division of tasks (between planning and execution, mental and menial work) and work. Gendered division of labour was also essential: the woman at home reproduces, maintains and provides care; the man in the factory produces and creates new wealth. It was a society of discipline with closed spaces in which all had their place: prescribed things at a prescribed time in a prescribed place.
It was possible to reach a new compromise between labour and capital based on the division of the return on investment. In other words, it was possible to increase both profit and wages by sharing the growth in productivity between wages and profit. The price of work was not dependent on the level of unemployment (i.e. on the labour market) but on the dynamics of productivity: if productivity increased, the workers’ purchasing power had to increase as well, so that a demand could be created corresponding to the growth in productivity. The task of the state was to secure the cycle of growth in production and consumption, not merely by acting as a judge in collective agreement negotiations but also through infrastructure investments and indirect social-income transfers (education, home and health care). As a result of this compromise, relatively stable social and economic control mechanisms were created on which the behaviour of the most important economic interest groups was based.
This economic growth model has been in crisis since the 1970s. One critical reason is that productivity has ceased to grow. On the other hand, the discontent of new generations with factory discipline, the desire and opportunity to study (the creation of a mass intelligentsia) and the increase of social conflicts made it more difficult to obtain the necessary labour force. This subjective element, people’s desire to get away from the factories and their discipline, played an essential role in the transformation of capital. In a sense this did away with the idea of the factory even before the factory buildings came down and the industrial cities were re-zoned as society became more financially driven and production more de-localized. Neoliberal “deregulation” is for its part also a result of the workers’ struggle which the trade-union movement was unable to control within the limits of the Fordist contract.
Another vital factor of the crisis was the rise in raw material prices, especially in the case of the oil crisis, and the growing instability of the international financial markets caused by the dollar no longer being tied to the gold standard. In addition, the demand for durable goods showed signs of drying up. Production was poorly differentiated and too standardized. The decrease of international demand due to the volatility of international relations (“the Cold War” and the division of the world into two camps) added to the crisis.
Capitalist countries have begun establishing a series of strategies to systematically overcome these aspects of the crisis arising from the level of the organization of production. These strategies have a direct effect on the Fordist compromise and the functioning of the regulation systems as well as on the role of the state (for example in the creation of money) – all issues to which the left has been unwilling to react.
First, we can mention the challenge to the power of the trade-union movement. If the workers’ ability to consume, and if wage increases, no longer had a positive effect on capital accumulation, the trade-union as a collective-agreement partner lost its previous significant function as the guarantor and controller of continued wage development and the supplier of the workforce. “Outsourcing” of economic tasks not directly related to the production process (cleaning, maintenance, advertising, quality control, research and development, logistics) was initiated. In addition, flexibility of production could be used to increase the possibilities of customizing the products; new versions can be made of the same product (age of “individualism”). There were efforts to combine flexibility with automation which would guarantee growth in production. In addition, mechanical, inflexible, standardized and repetitious work were replaced by flexible information techniques which were introduced into production (the transformation from mechanical to information techniques which took place in the 1980s and 1990s, the golden age of ICT consultation).
Thanks to the new information techniques, companies became technologically more flexible. They became less dependent on a particular mechanical technology. At the same time, they were able to carry out flexible production and get a better hold on demand. Large corporations started to scale down and concentrate on their “core knowledge”. Currently, new investments no longer create jobs but make them scarce. New forms of relationship between large-scale and small-scale enterprises are also created. Flexible labour is expanded, and new types of job contracts proliferate.
Different forms of work flexibility can be identified. In the first place, flexibility is expanded through dismantling traditional work methods and creating new organizational forms. Enterprises tend both to outsource parts of their activities and to establish new forms of work internally, such as projects and teams where the workers’ personal responsibility and work commitment play a more significant role. Secondly, there is the creation of the so-called “atypical” work contracts such as parttime, fixed-term, indenture, and trial-period work. The trial-period practice has spread to nearly all occupational groups, and in the trial period the worker is not protected by the contract. A host of new types of job contracts have arisen occupying a place between permanent and fixedterm jobs. Thirdly, there is a growing number of independent workers who are economically dependent on the company. These new “entrepreneurs”, who run their companies for a year or two, are a blind spot in the research on work conditions as well as in statistics, as they are neither in a permanent nor a fixed-term contract. They are often de-facto subcontractors to one company.
If the types of job contracts vary, so do work times. Nowadays production is nonstop – also in small-scale companies. The amount of overtime has increased. The worker often experiences a concrete enmeshing of work time with his/her whole life since he has constantly to be available and be able “to check just one more thing”. Work-commitment time and official work time increases despite the fact that time spent in the office seems to be on the decrease. In other words, work time and production time are different from each other, production time being considerably longer than the work time that is the basis of calculating wages. Wage systems become more flexible, with wages defined “individually” and not according to the tasks performed. At the same time, automatic, built-in features and benefits disappears from wage development (wage increases, seniority raises, etc.), and wages start to vary. Wages also become separated from the overall development of productivity and they are defined more and more in relation to company interest. There is also a return to the pre-Fordist situation when wages lose their status as an independent variable and come to be defined in relation to the levels of unemployment in the labour markets (partly due to the changes in work). The flexibility of labour also emphasizes the role of individual agreements at the expense of collective agreements.
The increase in flexibility has a host of general and partly contradictory effects. For example, the ties between the growth in production and employment and between the growth in productivity and the income generated from work disappear. From the late 1970s onwards, workers have known that new investments do not increase employment. The significance of different international factors increases as the economy becomes globalised and, correspondingly, the meaning of the nation-state weakens. As a result, Keynesian and welfare-state politics do not work, and at the same time the various localisms gain in significance. Income distribution in general becomes more obscure. As the comparability of work disappears, new forms of discrimination on the basis of gender and “race” may increase, and these conflicts no longer are directly tied to “race” as much as to “who you are”, i.e. to personality and opportunities in life more generally.
Following Sergio Bologna and Andrea Fumagalli, we call the new forms of work “second-generation autonomous (independent) work” and the workers “knowledge workers” because in their work the society’s general knowledge capacities, interaction and networks form the basis of the worker’s subjectivity or “culture”.
This second-generation autonomous work – as opposed to traditional craftsmanship and small-scale entrepreneurship – arises when the factory turns into an enterprise, that is, when the factory as a production plant dissociates itself from the confines of a particular space and time as a result of new automation and a reduction in the workforce. The factory was bound to a place, and work and production happened in a certain space at a certain time. For its part, the company aims at transforming itself into an environment of production and economic value, which makes use of the entire status state of development of society and the people’s – the entrepreneurs’ – whole life time. When the immediate production process loses its meaning, when work is outsourced as services and when it is more difficult to anticipate demand, the factory and its typical demand for labour is replaced with a new kind of labour market which bring the different “company-to-company services” together with the factory’s demand for labour. Factories are replaced by companies that spread throughout the region and the society and are interconnected and in contact with one another. These – often one or two-person companies – offer services to other companies. “The entrepreneurs” or rather the workers have long workdays, the customers exploit them without obstacles, they have no unemployment security, they completely lack political representation and they have to imagine themselves as successful little capitalists. Their work has not necessarily changed from what it was they used to do, for example, in the factory, but now they have as “entrepreneurs” a totally different formal position in relation to their employer.
The new knowledge workers, the second-generation autonomous workers, are not a coincidental and exceptional category in the world of labour; aspects of independent labour and work done for others are mixed in their work. Rather than an exception, their work must be regarded as the ideal type of work today, which in its real status is often subordinate to someone else but which has disguised itself with the mask of independent work.
“Intellectuality” increases in second-generation autonomous work, but the growth in intellectualism does not mean that the work requires more qualifications or special skills. The difference between qualified and strong-position labour and unqualified and weak-position labour with varying tasks becomes rather vague. As a result, from markets that used to be divided into qualified and unqualified labour, we move on to precarious labour markets that will have an effect on all categories of the labour force and also change the job contracts. The second-generation autonomous worker can be well educated as well as precarious. His work has often to do with general human knowledge skills. Intellectualism and the role of communication are more visible than before and the work often consists of information processing (e.g. in service chains). “Information systems” have a key position in work, that is, in the networks of information flow, in which the worker is situated both inside and outside work. Therefore an important role is assumed by the relationship between that information (the ability to choose information and decide how to use it) that the worker is able to autonomously control and the “alienated” information that requires only reaction and is not autonomously controlled. A crucial question for struggle from the point of view of the worker is how much he/she has the right to know about the activities of the whole company, since the amount of information increases his/her autonomy and emphasizes the worker’s own powers of judgment. At the same time this ought to be a considerable advantage to the firm because the worker is then able to estimate and share the company’s risks.
Especially for the left, it would be erroneous to see second-generation autonomous work merely as the negative consequence of outsourcing and changes in enterprise forms. If the creation of this kind of work is fed by the large corporations’ needs to take advantage of the positive external effects (the workers’ increased responsibility for the production process and ability to better share in the company’s risks and to work with more commitment), on the other hand, one has to acknowledge the workers’ strong desire to be autonomous and take control of their own lives, and to shape their own personality and way of life. The dream to “be on one’s own” and “have a better life than we have”, the dream for which the earlier generations saved and put their children through school, is also the dream of new working class generations. In other words, the new second-generation autonomous workers, that is, the knowledge workers, do not necessarily look back at a lost paradise of wage labour. For them, the increase of autonomy, the possibility of independent action and their own knowledge are at the core of their professional skills and at the same time are their means for earning a living. In order to earn wages with a job contract you have to do what the employer tells you to do; at the same time the dominant trend in education is to suit it to whatever the current needs of the labour market happen to be.
If the development and maintenance of one’s skills involves participation in education that does not serve the needs of the current job, if it involves maintaining networks that cannot be reduced down to the networks needed in the current job, if it involves cooperation with the personnel of e.g. a competing company, one should have the right to undertake all these things. Professional skills should always be more than what the performance of the current job requires. Each task carries with it the possibility of doing things differently and not as they have been done. Otherwise work is just a mechanized activity and the actor himself does not give anything of himself in the work process. In other words, the worker must have information that surpasses the carrying out of a simple instruction. The worker’s information, or the state of free activity mentioned by Marx, is increasingly important for the production process. The new post-Fordist kind of labour needs skills and information that do not pre-exist and are not already found coded in the machine; it needs information that has repeatedly to be created and always to be renewed. We should be able to respond to this wish through concrete political initiatives.
The employer increasingly interferes less with the actual content of work, the skills and information needed to perform it. Neither does the employer actively control the work stages (for those working in projects and teams, control and orders come from “the project manager” and other colleagues who are not those with the express right to control, a fact that makes control horizontal and social). Work and productivity in work have rather become an independent ability to combine data and material “resources”, tools, relationships to the other employees and information and skills according to a certain goal. It is expected that the worker is a kind of capitalist who creates the whole social organization of production, the machinery needed in it and both controls and manages himself, such that he becomes an efficient producer.
The communicative aspect of work, the ability to work in a team, take others into account, the ability to disseminate information etc. as the basis for productive cooperation radically changes the internal composition of the enterprise. Theories on enterprises and capital are usually based on the idea that enterprises require three components of production and their corresponding social actors: capital, i.e. the investor who invests in starting the company, management or organization of work and production, and the living workforce. The enterprise is thus a social organization, a system of cooperation, whose significance is not only in bringing the goods to the market, but in how well it succeeds in creating surplus value through cooperation and especially the organization of work. In particular, it produces surplus value by making the use of labour more efficient, for example by calculating the cost and price of the reproduction of labour. The setting changes when the worker aims at defining himself as the organizer of the means of production and when the capitalist’s task is not the social organization of the means of production (the organization of time, space and tasks), these tasks having been transferred to the worker and to his ability to put himself and his colleagues to work. The multiplication of the forms of enterprise and individualisation – and the fallacies of labour statistics – as well as theories of human and social capital are based on the fact that work is identified with capital. As the difference between labour and capital is obscured, capital is specifically identified as a person, as his characteristics, and the person as a sort of a human machine who produces capital; as a machine that organizes skills and abilities as the factory and its machinery earlier used to do. At the same time the goals of education also change because now instead of particular skills, the aim is to “increase aptitude” or potentialities. There are no other means to estimate aptitude or learning ability or adaptability than through the assessment of the workers’ personality, the assessment of whether he is ready to subjugate himself to the carrying out of the set goals, or whether he is a risky case who may try to set his own goals, or whose goals are other than the ones connected to his work performance. The debate on women’s labour-market participation tells us something about this: women are less committed to work than men because they also think about their family and children; therefore they agree to worse working conditions, and in the end women’s entrance in the labour markets weakens the traditional one-breadwinner model and brings precarisation into the workplace.
Following Marx, we could talk about the collapse of the law of value. In the Grundrisse, in the section “Contradiction Between the Foundation of Bourgeois Production (Value as Measure) and its Development. Machines etc.”, Marx puts forth the idea that abstract knowledge, above all scientific knowledge, but not only, is about to become the most important force of production. In addition, one reason for this change is the autonomy of knowledge, its independence from the production of goods.
Abstract knowledge replaces compartmentalised and repetitive labour, i.e. industrial labour in its traditional form. As a result the immediate work performed by people – and not even work but simply “the development of the social individual” and the fact that people exist “as social bodies”- appear as “the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth”.
Marx speaks above all about materialized knowledge that becomes fixed capital which fossilizes into automated systems of machinery. They are “materialized powers of knowledge”. In this connection he uses the term “general intellect” – understanding and intellect in general: “The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge (Wissen) has become a direct force of production. To what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree powers of the social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process?” Marx’s term “general intellect” thus indicates the totality of knowledge that forms and pre-organizes the new centre of social production. Knowledge has stepped directly not only into the production process but also into the whole life process. However, general intellect above all indicates the general capacities of thinking and interaction, knowledge capacities that form the real centre of knowledge-ability-capitalism and from whose struggles a new “Putilov plant” emerges with the new capitalism and its new workers, workers who are able to challenge capital. In this plant the machines are those with which people know, feel and communicate, and their operators are knowing, feeling and communicating human bodies.
The primacy of general social knowledge in production means that “the theft of alien labour time on which the present wealth is based, appears as the miserable foundation in face of this new one.” In other words, labour in its “direct form” ceases to be the fountain of wealth and “exchange value ceases to be the measure of use value”. At the same time, the boundaries between work and non-work, action and thinking disappear. Now “the worker no longer inserts a modified natural thing as middle link between himself; rather, he inserts the process of nature, transformed into an industrial process as a means between himself and inorganic nature.”
The current development profoundly changes the way in which work has to be thought of. As a consequence, we have to ask: what is the relationship of leadership, management and supervision to the traditional industrial labour in which work was bound to time and space and particular tasks? Now self-organization and the coercion of oneself to work replace the factory’s organization and management. Instead of the worker battling external supervision he feels the contradiction as a struggle over his own abilities and time. In other words, the relationships between independence or autonomy and subordination are redefined, and this in turn defines the political subjectivity of the “information workers” – or the second-generation autonomous workers – in ways that differ from the subjectivity of “the mass labourer”.
We can list very briefly some of the characteristics of second-generation autonomous work in relation to time and space, characteristics that to our mind affect or should affect left politics.
First of all, we note the change of work space or production space. As examples of this change we can cite the need to anticipate changes in demand, the building of service chains, the outsourcing of certain activities, the overall scaling down of the production process, the possibility offered by the new technologies of breaking up the chronological time of the assembly line, and the opportunity to perform the various stages of work simultaneously or randomly.
The factory has broken down into a network organizing different horizontal and vertical components. Today we can talk about the spatial limitlessness of work. For example, outsourcing and restructuring are ways of turning cleaning or municipal services into activities that are independent of a particular place. There is also a tendency within enterprises to change work communities in terms of spatiality and organization through projects and team work. As a result of all these changes it is difficult in the end to tell where a certain product is made, where the work actually takes place. The limitlessness of production, the break in its spatial structure, manifested in this de-localisation of production, has removed a great part of the nation-state’s a capacity to regulate the relationship between production and consumption and its possibilities of influencing income distribution.
What is more, the spatial limitlessness has eroded the division between the workplace and home which used to be important in industrial society. The new relationship between life and work can be seen in the workplace-home relation where work has started to resemble homework in its organization of different and contradictory pieces and in the organization of work time within living time. At the same time, the division between productive and reproductive work has become contentious.
The organisation of work time and the regulation of the work day were an important issue in industrial capitalism. Collective agreement negotiations dealt with the compensation received for the time spent in waged labour. Today work time penetrates all the pores of life, and living time is mixed in with work time in education, self-access. The blurring of the boundaries also pertains to the work itself: work tasks become vague and people have moved away from explicit work performance and toward carrying out projects, taking care of service chains, processing different types of information and controlling contexts; the work is done in teams and projects and the tasks within them may vary from job to job.
One more element of change or indefiniteness can be cited the constant change of work tasks, work space and work time: the worker whose subjectivity varies or becomes ambiguous. It is hard to say who the authentic actor is when production consists of ever-changing compositions or schemes of space, time, action and subjects (people) scattered all over the society.
These changes alter the labour markets and the field the ways in which politics now has to operate as well as its goals.
Aglietta, Michel: A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The US Experience. New Left Books, London 1979.
Bologna, Sergio & Fumagalli, Andrea: Il lavoro autonomo di seconda generazione. Scenari del postfordismo in Italia. Feltrinelli, Milan 1997.
Boyer, Robert: The Future of Economic Growth. As New Becomes Old. Edward Elgar Publishing 2004.0
Foucault, Michel: Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978, Palgrave Macmillan 2007.
Marx, Karl: Grundrisse. Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), Penguin Bokks, Harmondsworth 1973.
Marx, Karl: Theories of Surplus-Value, Part I, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1963.
This text is an English translation of a chapter of the book “Left is Looking for Work” (Like Publishing Ltd. 2008, 292 p). The book is the result of a project organised by Left Forum (Finland) and the research co-operative General Intellect