Work in capitalist society is not only exploitative but crushes creativity and wastes intelligence, argues Michael Perelman. But is it possible for this to be changed without fundamental social transformation?

Michael Perelman, The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism: How Market Tyranny Stifles The Economy By Stunting Workers (Monthly Review Press 2011), 360pp.

That capitalism is not a rewarding or healthy system for the vast majority of workers may not come as news to most of us, but as Perelman points out in this interesting book, such understanding has never been part of mainstream economics. Following Adam Smith, capitalist economics has concentrated on transactions – the operation of the market – to the exclusion of production, and therefore of the conditions under which production happens. The result, Perelman argues, is not just appalling conditions for workers but, in capitalist terms an even worse consequence, the diminution of profits.

Perelman characterises capitalist management of the workforce as ‘Procrustian’, after the mythological ancient Greek bandit Procrustes, who would torture travellers to death by strapping them to a bed and then either stretching them to fit, or lopping off any bits of limbs which overhung it. For Perelman, the metaphor captures not only the brutality of labour relations under capitalism, but the way in which workers are objectified into human capital. In this state, they are not expected to have ideas or creative input of their own, but to have to fit themselves into preconceived roles, regardless of any additional abilities they could apply if they were allowed to do so. The ‘we don’t pay you to think’ style of management, which Perelman’s students report to him is their usual experience in their jobs, is a particularly Procrustian one.

The results are not of course restricted to wasted talents, as Perelman makes clear by recounting the industrial accidents, mine disasters and air crashes which can be attributed to management’s dogged adherence to practices their workforce could have told them were likely to be disastrous. However, since Perelman’s case is that capitalism’s failure to make the most of its workers is a failure in its own terms, the focus falls on the wastefulness of Procrustian practices.

The obvious questions here are why, if this way of treating workers is a mistake in capitalist terms, are economists and employers so wedded to it. In the myth, there is no reason for Procrustes’ behaviour: he tortures and murders people because he is a bandit and that is what bandits do. However, while it would be a mistake to assume that capitalists always act rationally in their own best interests, metaphorical Procrustianism clearly requires more of an explanation.

For Perelman, the roots of the problem lie with Adam Smith. In part, this is Smith’s failure to see workers and production as of equal importance to commercial transactions, which is compounded by the perpetuation of this orthodoxy in modern mainstream economics. The orthodoxy is enforced both by the professional consequences for those few economists who have tried to suggest more worker-centric models, and by a sense that spending too much time on such messy things as workers is somehow unscientific. Perelman points out that economics suffers from ‘physics envy’, meaning that there is an inbuilt tendency both for atomisation and a preference for the quantifiable over the subjective experience of workers. However, Perelman also sees a line between Adam Smith’s thinking and dangerous, antagonistic workplaces today, and he provides an informative account of Smith’s thinking about work and workers to support this observation.

When Smith did notice the conditions of production, and the workers actually doing the producing, he tended to attribute the productive capacity of industrialised workers to the way their jobs were organised, Perelman argues. According to Smith, it was the division of production into a number of discrete, repetitive tasks, each carried out by different workers or groups of workers, which was key to allowing production to increase. The example Perelman gives is Smith’s discussion of a pin factory near his home in Kirkcaldy. Smith noted that the men who worked there produced large numbers of pins in a day, whereas each man, untrained and on his own, would have been hard put to it to make a single pin in the same time. It might appear that the key here was the machinery in the factory, and others have pointed out how Smith’s pin factory discussion exposes the limits of his understanding of industrial production (that he used a small pin factory to stand for large scale industrial enterprises was only one of them). However, it is clear that to Smith technological developments seemed less important in increasing production than did the regimentation of the workforce.

While Adam Smith may have believed that this way of organising workers was the key to maximising production, it is unlikely that many modern CEOs still do. The management theory most obviously descended from this view is Taylorism, from its progenitor Frederick Taylor (1856-1915), which aims to maximise managerial control by breaking jobs up into simple, repetitive tasks, each performed by a different worker, coupled with lots of supervision. This sounds immediately familiar, but it is worth noting that it is regarded as decidedly old fashioned in theory. Taylor’s belief that workers are motivated only by their wages and that there is no point in trying to make their jobs interesting, as long as they are paid, has been replaced by various types of human relations theory, seeing motivation from interest in the other job as key to productivity. The persistence of Taylorism in practice has, Perelman shows, little to do with getting more out of workers. It is about control and fear.

For Perelman, this motivation again can be traced back to Adam Smith. Smith’s reputation is as a liberal, a believer in the ‘invisible hand’ of the market rather than more authoritarian options, but Perelman highlights here that he was concerned with how the working class could be kept under control, as well as forced to use some of their leisure time for what Smith saw as socially desirable pursuits, like joining militias to prepare them for military service. This attitude to the working class is reflected by modern managers for whom breaking jobs up into separate simple tasks is a way of replacing skilled workers, who have power by virtue of the difficulty and expense involved in replacing them, with unskilled labour, easily interchangeable with new recruits from the reserve army of labour and consequently more fearful and compliant.

Perelman provides some interesting examples of corporations’ fear of their workers. At General Motors the senior management floors at head office are separated by locked and guarded doors from the rest of the building, and the lifts will only stop there with a special executive key. At a company called Tiger Mill, management saw that workers’ access to management financial information was allowing them to make helpful suggestions to improve production, and concluded that they should be kicked off the system as they were putting management out of a job. Add to this the costs of supervising and guarding workers, and the effects of workers fighting back, and it all adds up to an antagonistic system and a colossal waste of resources.

Perelman is very clear on the nature and cause of the problem, but his suggestion of the solution is less so. He argues, rightly, that the dignity of workers, seeing them as rounded human beings, as opposed to as human capital, should be central, but there is little here to indicate how such a re-orientation might be brought about. The conclusion that this change would then inevitably cause the end of class divisions seems similarly to be missing several intermediate steps.

The issue is the extent to which you believe that it is possible for capitalism to change this aspect of the system. Perelman’s designation of the system he discusses as ‘Procrustian’ suggests that on some level at least he considers it not to be an essential aspect of capitalism. The additional descriptor implies that while capitalist labour relations may be Procrustian now, it would be possible to have a capitalist system that was not. However, the fact that for the last fifty years management theorists have been pointing out that boring and bullying workers are not the ways to maximise their productivity, while Taylorism is as prevalent as ever, implies that this style of management is more intrinsic to capitalism than Perelman would like to think.

Missing from Perelman’s account of work and working relations is the understanding that labour under capitalism is inherently exploitative. Regardless of how pleasant or unpleasant the conditions are for the individual worker, their employer’s profits come from the surplus value of their labour – the value they generate for which they do not get paid. Allowing workers to make suggestions by sticking Post Its on the cars they make, as at Toyota, may allow those workers to feel rather more engaged with their jobs than their counterparts at Ford, but it does not change the central fact that both companies are in business through exploiting their workers. More respect for human dignity, and less thinking about ‘human capital’, would indeed be a step forward for workers who have to endure dangerous and unpleasant working conditions every day, but eliding workplace hierarchies would not by itself eliminate the class system. Class conflict may not be good for workplace relations, but we will not see the end of class without it.

In the end, Perelman’s work seems to belong to the wide category of works which are effectively calling for proletarian revolution without admitting, or perhaps knowing, that that is the conclusion to which their arguments point. However, it is a useful and interesting addition to the body of work by writers like Richard Sennett that discuss the effects of capitalism on the experience of work, even if you might look elsewhere for a more explicitly revolutionary consideration of what we might do about it.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.