Socialization versus alienation in the capitalist labor process: Reclaiming Marx from the neomarxists

Matt Vidal


This paper develops labor process theory in a new direction. Existing labor process theory has focused on how capitalist management leads to the degradation of work, and specifically on how various managerial control regimes impact workers, largely negatively, in terms of reducing autonomy, intensifying work and/or engaging in ideological manipulation. While I agree that such control regimes are often detrimental to workers, in this chapter I want to shift the focus from the effect of control regimes on workers to the role of capitalist management in generating organizational inefficiency. The emphasis on inefficiency is meant to provide a new basis for the marxist critique of capitalist management and capitalist markets.

The legitimacy of capitalist ownership and markets rests on the idea – the assumption – that private, for-profit firms maximize technical efficiency and that markets maximize allocative efficiency while ensuring technical efficiency through competitive discipline. If, however, relative technical inefficiency is systematically produced by capitalist management and permitted by markets as part of their normal operation, then their legitimacy comes into question. If, further, capitalist management systematically obstructs adoption of the most efficient operational practice, then efficiency becomes political. If, finally, private ownership and free markets can be shown to impede efficiency maximization, then the use of “efficiency considerations” as a justification for nearly any firm practice, from downsizing to work intensification, and for free market policy, loses its punch.

This paper begins by presenting a classical interpretation of Marx focused on the contradictory structural tendencies that generate global technical progress alongside local and regional forms of struggle and degradation. I build theory by way of intellectual history. The In doing so, I carefully review six foundational, book-length theoretical statements on labor process theory: Braverman (1974), Friedman (1977), Edwards (1979), Burawoy (1982), Littler (1982) and Thompson (1983). It is necessary to focus on these six books because they set the foundation for all of subsequent labor process theory, which has, particularly following the most influential of the three – Braverman, Edwards and Burawoy – taken labor process theory in a neomarxist direction which has lost the most important analytical tools Marx developed for understanding competition and labor management today. Following this, I review subsequent labor process research that has used the neomarxist “core theory” (Thompson, 1990).

I argue that within the capitalist labor process, the structural contradiction between the forces and relations of production is expressed as an internal tension between organizing the labor process as efficiently as possible and ensuring labor valorization, that is, securing sufficient output from labor. The focus of capitalist managers on valorization may actually undermine the most efficient organizational form. This contradictory dynamic is expressed in a tension managers face between the roles of coordinating production and controlling labor. In terms of the workforce, it is expressed as a tension between productive socialization and alienation. In the postfordist context, best practice is to empower workers to have decision making authority, but managers find that empowering alienated workers is exceedingly difficult and thus often fail to do so.

labor process - valorization proces - alienation - efficiency