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labour process

  \' … a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature\' (Marx, 1976). The sexism in this definition reflects the widespread tendency to assume (correctly in some places at some times but far from inherently correct and, in developed industrial economies, increasingly incorrectly) both that participation in the labour process is restricted to wage labour and that males dominate the waged labour force.

The universal characteristics of the labour process include work itself, the object upon which work is undertaken, and the instruments of labour. But human labour is characterized above all by thought and symbolism (Godelier, 1986). Despite the fact that

a bee would put many an architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells … what distinguishes the worst of architects from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he [sic] constructs it in wax. … Man [sic] not only effects a change of form in the materials of nature; he [sic] also realizes his own purpose in those materials. (Marx, 1976)It is this aspect of the labour process that has been most profoundly modified in capitalist production.

Marx distinguishes between the formal subsumption of labour by capital, in which labour is subordinated by capital simply by the compulsion for people to sell their labour power in order to survive, and the real subsumption of labour by capital in which capital reorganizes the labour process itself. In the former circumstance, capital has to accept labour as it finds it and so remains dependent upon its workers\' bargainable skills and crafts. Under these conditions, the best that can be achieved is the production of absolute surplus value, involving an extension of the working day (see Marxian economics). With the capitalist transformation of the labour process, the attempt is made formally to subsume labour to capital. But the special nature of labour power as a commodity turns this process into an indeterminate political rather than purely economic or technical dynamic (compare Storper and Walker, 1989 with Dunford and Perrons, 1983; see labour market).

Beginning with the capitalist organization of cooperation between craft workers, capital may secure an ever more rigorous hold over the labour process through the division of labour and manufacture, the introduction of machinery, the growth of large-scale industry and the emergence of the factory system (see industrial revolution). With these developments comes the ability to modify the labour process in order to increase productivity and so to produce relative surplus value (see Marxian economics). Associated with these changes comes a monumental physical and geographical revolution in production and the re-evaluation of skill.

Not the least significant manifestation of this is the separation of home and work. In pre-industrial societies and for many in the Third World today, home and work are not separate. With the development of modern industry and the rise of the factory system the separation of work and home began and, as the process continued, workers came to be hired on an individualistic rather than a household basis. One response to this was the succession of Factory Acts designed to protect women and children from exploitation and so explicitly gendering the new geographies of labour markets and labour processes (see gender and geography). Women\'s employment outside the home — even if employed in domestic service — remained low until the early part of the twentieth century since when it has risen more or less continuously and markedly so during two world wars.

Today the rate of female (waged) employment is approaching that of male employment in many countries but women are grossly over-represented in poorly paid, routine operations and have moved into such work as technology and organizational change have combined to redefine its status and nature. In 1850 in the UK, for example, 99 per cent of clerks were men; in 1991 nearly 90 per cent of clerical workers and 98 per cent of secretaries in the UK were women (Giddens, 1997). Far more women are in part-time jobs than men and the growth of employment in \'flexible\' labour markets like the UK has been fuelled primarily by part-time and often poorly paid female employment. At the other end of the spectrum, women are grossly under-represented in top jobs in the professions and as senior managers and company directors/partners, to say nothing of their rarity as university professors. And, where they are present, they face a range of difficulties emanating from the presumption of such jobs as men\'s work and from the continuing hegemony and cultural capital established in the nineteenth century (see e.g. McDowell, 1997a, 1997b).

Within the workplace, scientific management, developed from the practices of Henry Ford and the principles of F.W. Taylor (see Fordism), redefined the nature of work further by the pre-planning and complete specification of every aspect of the labour process. Scientific management further separates the mental and the manual aspects of work and intensifies the demand for management, engineering and design specialists, increases the specialization of skilled and semi-skilled labour and increases the demand for that labour to operate but not control machines. This separation has facilitated the new international division of labour, as capital has been able to separate its productive operations into a hierarchy of activities, with global management at the top of the hierarchy and production at the bottom (see Massey, 1995).

These changes may be summarized (see, for example, Dunford and Perrons, 1983) as four phases of development of the labour process:

{img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } manufacture: independent workers gathered together into workshops; rudimentary division of labour; {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } machinofacture: mechanization, the application of inanimate power and the division of labour extends human labour power and individual production; {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } scientific management and Fordism: scientific division of work into specialized tasks and the introduction of the moving assembly line; {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } neo-Fordism: further fragmentation of tasks and increasing automation and mechanization of thought through computer-aided design and production.Despite this apparent progression of change, the crisis of Fordism is due in large measure to the limitations of its labour process. It is inflexible, capital-intensive, producer-orientated and, notwithstanding its rhetoric of labour control, susceptible to disruption by labour — a contradiction which provided the theme for Charlie Chaplin\'s 1936 film, Modern Times.

Microelectronic technology now allows the complete reintegration of material and information handling (formerly integrated by labour) at the corporate level and so completes the subordination of labour by capital. The crisis of Fordism is thought to be leading not only to the restructuring of the workplace (Meegan, 1988) but of the workforce and labour process too (Harvey, 1989). Functional and numerical flexibility are seen as critical responses to the increasingly intense levels of global competition in an uncertain environment, although the evidence for such changes is far from fully convincing (Allen, 1988).

As always with the labour process, the future is uncertain and far from determined in a simple fashion. It seems likely that specialization, standardization and routinization will continue — with all the implications that such processes may have for the segmentation of labour — and, at the same time, an increasing flexibility of the production process and of the organization of production will develop further. The combined effect of these processes will increase the geographical and sectorial diversity of the labour process. Thus Ray Hudson (1997, p. 303) points to current attempts by capital to experiment with \'high volume production\' (HVP) which

seek to combine the benefits of economies of scope and greater flexibility in responding to consumer demand which are characteristic of small batch production with those of economies of scale characteristic of mass production.They include just-in-time production, lean production, dynamic flexibility, flexible automation and mass customization. Tellingly, his conclusion is that HVP is no more a permanent solution to the sustenance of profitability than was the displacement of craft production by mass production or the once revolutionary innovations of Taylorism-Fordism, due not least to the global differentiation of labour markets.

Labour is far from being a passive element in the development of the labour process (e.g. Wills, 1998): Marx\'s own account of the course of the Industrial Revolution stresses that point. The development of capitalist production has followed certain tendencies to which labour has responded in a variety of ways, many of which have, paradoxically, tended to stabilize and ensure the reproduction of capitalist production (Urry, 1981). Changes in the forces of production do not deterministically bring forth appropriate changes in the relations of production and the labour force remains influential in the effectivity of production technology. As Halford and Savage (1997) have shown, gender is deeply embodied in organizational restructuring and in the deskilling/reskilling processes. Labour is, therefore, able to contest and resist these processes discussed in a more deterministic fashion by Braverman (1974). And resistance to HVP, for example, may come from the possibilities of disrupting production, provided that labour is able to organize across national boundaries.

Thus, neither is geography passive; on the contrary, geography matters. Geography is an active element which shapes the labour process by presenting a diverse range of conditions for production by conditioning production strategies and, through the influence of local social structures and cultures, by influencing the detailed operation of particular processes of production (see, e.g., Herod, 1998). (RL)

References Allen, J. 1988: Fragmented firms, disorganized labour? In J. Allen and D. Massey, eds, The economy in question. London and Newbury Park, CA: Sage, ch. 5. Braverman, H. 1974: Labour and monopoly capital. The degradation of work in the twentieth century. New York and London: Monthly Review Press. Dunford, M. and Perrons, D. 1983: The arena of capital. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin\'s Press, part III. Giddens, A. 1997: Sociology, 3rd edn. Cambridge and Oxford: Polity Press. Godelier, M. 1986: The mental and the material. London and New York: Verso. Halford, S. and Savage, M. 1997: Rethinking restructuring: embodiment, agency and identity in organizational change. In R. Lee and J. Wills, eds, Geographies of economies, ch. 9. London and New York: Arnold, 108-17. Harvey, D. 1982: The limits to capital. Oxford: Basil Blackwell; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ch. 4. Harvey, D. 1989: The condition of postmodernity. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, ch. 9. Herod, A. 1998: Discourse on the docks: containerization and inter-union work disputes in US ports 1955-1985. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 23. Hudson, R. 1997: The end of mass production and of the mass collective worker? Experimenting with production and employment. In R. Lee and J. Wills, eds, Geographies of economies, ch. 23. London and New York: Arnold, 302-10. Marx, K. 1976 [orig. pub. 1867]: Capital, vol. 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin, ch. 7. Massey, D. 1995: Spatial divisions of labour, 2nd edn. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan. McDowell, L. 1997a: A tale of two cities? Embedded organizations and embodied workers in the City of London. In R. Lee and J. Wills, eds, Geographies of economies, ch. 10. London and New York: Arnold, 118-29. McDowell, L. 1997b: Capital culture: gender at work in the city. Oxford: Blackwell. Meegan, R. 1988: A crisis of mass production? In J. Allen and D. Massey, eds, The economy in question, ch. 4. London and Newbury Park, CA: Sage. Storper, M. and Walker, R. 1989: The capitalist imperative. New York and Oxford: Basil Blackwell, ch. 6. Urry, J. 1981: The anatomy of capitalist societies. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan; Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, ch. 7. Wills, J. 1998: A stake in place? The geography of employee ownership and its implications for a stakeholding society. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 23: 79-94.

Suggested Reading Hudson (1997). McDowell (1997b).



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