I am pleased that Matt Vidal has responded to my review of his book, Management Divided: Contradictions of Labor Management, giving me a chance to state in a clearer fashion some of the issues I have with his approach.1 These are genuine differences and, despite his suggestion, I have not consciously or deliberately misrepresented anything he has written in the book.2 Readers can make up their own minds. I reply here lest silence is taken as an admission of lack of confidence in the validity of my original arguments and because, if Vidal were correct in his assessment, it would question this journal’s reputation and integrity.
In order to avoid repetition of the original review, and to keep this piece brief, the response takes up only some of the points raised by Vidal, organised around his empirical findings and theoretical differences, concluding with the political implications of his position.
Management Divided promotes the idea that left-wing critics of lean production are driven not by evidence but by ideology. As Vidal says in his response:
My interviews and observations in United States manufacturing firms were hard to reconcile with the picture painted by contemporary labour process theory and the critical scholarship on lean production. Workers were generally interested in the success of their organisations and in doing their part to ensure that success (despite often being deeply sceptical of management). Managers in general were not focused on—let alone preoccupied with—labour control or work speed-up and, in many cases, were focused on cross-training their workers and including these workers in problem solving and decision making about labour process improvement.3
That workers are interested in the success of their organisations is not peculiar to lean regimes and adds no legitimacy to them.4 The presence of such interests does nothing to undermine critiques of lean production. A central point of lean is control of labour through the organisation of production to ensure continuous labour, exercised in part through the kanban internal ordering system, which is designed to eliminate buffers and ensure continuous flow. No critic of lean fails to notice the cross-training of workers and the problem-solving and continuous improvement procedures; the contention is that, within the total relations of production, they are mechanisms that further subordinate workers to the interests of capital through greater work intensity. There is enough evidence in the book to suggest this, despite Vidal not giving it weight.
Vidal highlights the case of “a low-volume union shop with around 90 workers, who make hydraulic presses”.5 Examining in more detail this company, which Vidal must consider a strong representative of his argument, none of the initiatives and intentions listed above that Vidal regards as positive are antithetical to the intensification of labour and an increase in exploitation. He states that the manager “enthusiastically signed a partnership agreement with the union in which he agreed to ‘shared decision making around the vital functions that are critical to the business, its costs and the processes’ and ‘a jointly developed strategic business plan’”.6 Again the priorities are clear—there is no suggestion here of improving workers’ remuneration or that the quality of working life might be allowed to threaten profits and the processes that produce them. Reiterating my original response, the fact that a union cooperated proves little; in an earlier article, Vidal showed evident awareness of the incorporation of trade union leaderships through social partnership arrangements and the simultaneous sidelining of their memberships, but this fails to influence his analysis here.7
Statements from some of the five workers (including the union president) interviewed by Vidal illustrate their cross training and input into work arrangements. Elements within the quotations suggest that differing interpretations are plausible. One worker found the job “more challenging”: over the longer term, and with increased productivity, when does more challenging become more stressful? Similarly, the line between, on the one hand, “Definitely less bored because there’s more flexibility, and you are able to stay busy longer”,8 and on the other hand, “must stay busy longer” could easily erode. Moreover, the book provides additional information about the same company and its management that gives a different impression to the one Vidal presents here.
The idea of significant substantive shifts of power at Hydraulic Systems, for instance, is contradicted by the following from the union shop chair:
[The plant manager] is an alright guy. Alright, I mean, let’s get that straight right now… But when [he] starts to lose a little bit of his power, [he] gets real goofy. You know? [He] likes having absolute power.9
The notion that lean is all about quality and has nothing to do with intensification or raising the rate of exploitation does not withstand scrutiny. Vidal claims that workers “are given real input into decisions made within kaizen problem-solving groups”, illustrating the claim by quoting the (union president) machinist:
We share our ideas that we already know…and I’m the facilitator for some of these—with the idea that no ideas are wrong, they’re just different. Some of them might work and some of them might not because of the cost or whatever, and those all have to be taken into consideration.10
No doubt employers are genuinely interested in suggestions on how to improve outputs and reduce costs, but these considerations produce a framework that filters ideas that are acceptable from those that are not. The example above suggests the same fate. Another machinist talked about redesigning the work during a kaizen event. The changes enabled the workers to make a higher percent. Although the change made the overall job easier, workers “still had to show some productivity”.11 The general foreman (also a machinist) provided examples of the opportunities to participate that were available to workers:
We picked two machines; we picked all the operators… We sat them down, we said, “What can we do?” And I don’t have the numbers on that. That was about four or five years ago. We cut the cost like in half. And we do one hell of a job right now.12
There is no suggestion that workers received a commensurate wage increase. Commenting on performance, he continues:
And [workers] know, the way the economic things are right now in the world, that if we don’t compete, if we don’t get these costs down, we’re screwed and we’re going to be closing our doors here.13
As noted above, Vidal believes that “critics [of lean] see work intensification primarily in quantitative terms”. Yet, intensification is not a term that should be reduced, as he does, to the subjective reactions of individual workers. Karl Marx distinguished the development of work in factories from earlier forms of the capitalist labour process in which workers were employed collectively but used traditional skills and tools. Labour could, at this stage, potentially still work independently of capital, utilising the traditional methods.14 In this period of capitalist development, when employed by capital, workers were only formally subordinated, and capitalists increased production by extending the working day of the factory. However, the working day is finite and thus, to increase production, the methods of work had to be changed, requiring massive capital outlays on machinery. There was no longer any chance that self-employed workers could compete, leaving workers with no alternative but to accept the organisation and dominance of capital; Marx called this phase, “real” subordination. It is this latter stage that enables the intensification of labour. Marx noted the boost to the uptake of more and more efficient machinery after the passing of the ten-hour day legislation, leading to increased production through the intensification of labour in a shorter working day.15
Put simply, if more goods than previously are produced in ten hours through changes in machinery and/or organisation, labour is intensified, regardless of whether labour is more or less bored during the work process and irrespective of whether workers are compelled to put in more physical effort.16 Indeed, the revolutionising of the means of production may take fewer workers to produce more, with less physical effort: it nevertheless can still increase the intensity of work and relative surplus value through increased productivity.17
Collectively, the quotations assembled by Vidal display the hallmarks of contradictory consciousness within workers.18 Workers cooperate out of necessity. Some will accept and identify with the company more than others and be more willing to participate. Even as they do so, however, intimations are there of other possibilities. At no stage in Vidal’s account is capitalist control threatened, and at no point is there any indication that the changes in the labour process have been driven by interests other than those of capital. All have been subordinated to lowering costs and increasing productivity. Vidal might argue that the changes are not a sum-zero game, and that both labour and capital have made gains. From a socialist perspective amelioration of workers’ lives is important, but so is the question of how this is accomplished and whether the means of achieving this strengthen workers’ identity as workers and clarify their collective interests. The contention here is that, although some workers appear to accept lean (and again the complaint against the book is that the acknowledged organised opposition is never directly represented), whatever minor gains can be identified are nothing compared to the gains of capital and do not lay the preconditions for “a renewed movement for workers’ control”.19
I do not accord Vidal’s evidence the status he attaches to it. The questions asked condition the kind of answers you get. The book has no concern and no systematic data about changes in payment systems, productivity and changing workforce numbers—all of which would allow us to establish correlation between the introduction of lean and its effect on levels of exploitation. Where evidence emerges incidentally, it suggests that workers have fared badly. There is still no evidence that interviewees are representative; how they came to be the ones interviewed is still unaddressed, although it appears that they were selected by managers.20 Certainly, where mention is made of opposition to the lean, including organised opposition, no one is selected for interview.
Vidal objects to my description of the number of workers interviewed as relatively small. According to his figures, Vidal “interacted with 486 individuals from 59 organisations”:
I conducted qualitative interviews with 109 individuals in 31 firms… Interviews included 47 managers and engineers, 59 workers and three union business agents. The management, engineer and business agent interviews were typically around two hours each, with some lasting five hours in multiple sessions, and the worker interviews were typically half an hour, with some extending to an hour.21
Worker interviews were therefore relatively small in number, were in no way purposefully representative and came from firms with a total of over 5,000 production staff. They are also small relative to the number of managers, because managers are spokespeople for their organisations, holding official positions and patently representing organised and well resourced interests.
There is material suggesting that there are dangers in talking up the benefits of cross-training and kaizen. Vidal is reluctant to acknowledge this evidence and regards highlighting it in order to indicate another perspective as “cherry picking”. In the review, for instance, I quote a manager, who stated:
If we could divide the work—and we are as we create cells—you can get to the point where there isn’t as much dependence on the skill of the operator. It’s something that anybody can learn to do fairly quickly…and, following the work instructions and the procedures, can learn and will be rotating within an environment very fast.
They resent efforts that we’re making to, I’ll say, “commoditise” it…to break it up so that anybody can do it.22
This shows management’s unambiguous intention to weaken skilled workers’ control of the labour process. Vidal’s response is to reiterate his observation that the manager “described a form of Taylorist work simplification, but seeing this as pure deskilling is too reductive”.23
Finally, I am not questioning the need for both sociology and socialists to listen and learn from workers’ voices and evidence, but that does not make enquiry a value-free zone. John Goldthorpe and others did a well regarded study of Luton car workers that undermined the idea that workers were becoming more bourgeois in their values.24 However, at the same time they claimed that workers were becoming more instrumental and less class conscious, as illustrated by the majority response to a question that indicated support for a “teamwork” analogy as best describing relationships between management and workers. Contrary to the authors’ suggestion, this did not mean that workers accepted other aspects of their relationship, including wage levels, as non-conflictual. Thus, anyone reading the book might have been surprised to find that, despite the team analogy, workers were willing to strike shortly after the fieldwork was completed.
It is not the case that Vidal totally ignores expressions of worker dissatisfaction, but he claims that the complaints centred on a belief that lean was inefficient, not that it led to deskilling, increased production and loss of earnings. One illustration of this was the following:
Two of the workers…were former assemblers who lost income due to the shift from piecework to hourly wages with gainsharing and had subsequently transferred out of that position. These workers were extremely resentful and rightfully so, given their income loss. However, I want to show here that the source of their resentment was deeper, including their conviction that the new system was inefficient and would be harmful for the company.25
Vidal establishes that workers had a series of problems and frustrations with the implementation of cellular production—some financial, others about disruption of production and inefficiencies—and noted their bemusement at some changes. Is it not possible simply to take these as genuine and valid?26 Why must they be interpreted as a subconscious commitment to Fordist organisation as such? Although he lightly referred to the threat of redundancies and greater insecurity in places, there is no concerted examination of the issue of what happens as the permanent drive for efficiency proceeds. Linking together material concerns might explain the resistance rather than to an abstract notion of Fordism unconnected to material interests.
Marx and theory
The emphasis within the book on the progressive potential of lean is not simply a reflection of empirical research, but a necessary outcome of a particular reading of Marx. Although Vidal stresses the need to distinguish between a labour process and a valorisation process, his actual treatment of the two concepts does not reflect Marx’s understanding of the relationship between them, leading to an underestimation of the centrality and multifaceted nature of capitalist control. Analytically, the distinction between a labour process and valorisation is vital, but in practice the labour process and valorisation are not physically separate processes—capitalist production is the simultaneous creation of new use values while also creating new value for capital embodied in these use-values. The forces of production and social relations of production are entwined in practical, material tasks. Even though the two processes are analytically discrete, they cannot be separated in the empirical manner of Vidal. As Marx insisted, labour processes do not occur in the abstract but under definite social relations in concrete societies. In contrast, Vidal wants to spring the forces of production and the labour process from their capitalist form:
Labour process theory has conflated the valorisation process and the labour process. This is unfortunate because the distinction is crucial: the problem of securing sufficient labour effort is only one part of management. Management must also determine issues regarding workflow, batch size, inventory and production control, quality control and continuous improvement”.27
In his view, managerial questions concerning how to organise the overall production process are part of the means of production, subsumed into the labour process and relatively autonomous from issues of control and valorisation: “The broader labour process question regards which sets of practices—above and beyond those relating to labour effort—to adopt.”28 Post-Fordist valorisation therefore only concerns the restricted question of the disciplining of labour within the managerially determined, but itself socially neutral, production process.
His formulation suggests redefining manifold activities of capital that arise only because of the fundamental antagonism between labour and capital in order to include them within what Marx would regard as the labour process. In Marx’s theory, it is the collective worker that is engaged in the labour process of adding of use-values to existing use-values. Capitalists (and their agents) have complex (but not necessarily exclusive) roles that are outside the labour process. Marx made this clear:
It is the task of the capitalist to see to it when purchasing these means of production that their use-values have no more than the average quality needed to manufacture the product. This applies to both raw materials and to machinery. They must all function with average quality and not present labour, the living factor, with any abnormal obstacles… However, if the value of constant capital is not to be eroded, it must as far as possible be consumed productively and not squandered, since in that case the product would contain a greater amount of objectified labour within it than is socially necessary. In part, this depends on the workers themselves, and it is here that the supervisory responsibility of the capitalist enters. (He secures his position here through piecework, deductions from wages and so on.) He must also see to it that the labour is performed in an orderly and methodical fashion and that the use-value he has in mind emerges successfully at the end of the productive process. At this point, too, the capitalist’s ability to supervise and enforce discipline is vital. Lastly, he must make sure that the process of production is not interrupted or disturbed and that it really does proceed to the creation of the product within the time allowed for it by the particular labour process and its objective requirements.29
The design and implementation of lean production—a system predicated on ensuring that there is no waste, that “the process of production is not interrupted or disturbed”—would itself, according to Marx’s perspective, add no use-values and fall outside the labour process. Vidal diverges from this view, sharing with Paul Adler a particular interpretation of Marx in which managements play a much more extensive role in the production of use-values. Adler is particularly revealing on this point:
Techniques of work organisation (such as the principles of bureaucracy, Taylorism and lean production) are part of the forces of production. The development of such principles—organisational technology—is part of the socialisation process, representing a step towards more rational, conscious planning and management of large-scale, interdependent operations.30
In practice the overall process of capitalist production is the unity of the labour process and the valorisation process, but for Marx the “labour process itself is no more than an instrument of the valorisation process”, the latter being “the determining, dominating and overriding” one.31 The idea that complex capitalist organisations of production are first set up and only thereafter are decisions made concerning the nature and deployment of labour is unthinkable. The application of science and technology to the forces of production carries with it capitalist social relations designed and adopted to increase the production of surplus value. Vidal claims that:
Marx theorised a contradictory dynamic between alienation and deskilling, on the one hand, and productive socialisation of labour via increasing its organisational and technical capabilities, on the other hand. A long-term, progressive trend towards productive socialisation is inherent in capitalist development but distorted and retarded by short-term concerns with securing surplus value.32
Alienation and deskilling are by no means antipathetic to socialisation of labour. The division of labour is what leads to the development of what Marx termed the collective worker. Marx’s insistence on the dominance of capital’s valorisation process is also here reduced to a subordinate, short-term factor inhibiting the long-term path of capitalism. Some of Vidal’s discussion on the socialisation of production and the concept of the collective worker can be accepted. However, the subordination of these concepts to a perspective that characterises the development of capitalism as comprising short-term processes of degradation and immiseration, on the one hand, and longer-term ones involving progressive forms of socialisation, on the other, is problematic. It allows, for instance, Vidal’s claim that as technical complexity and interdependence increase under the ever-changing division of labour, productive socialisation “will generate increasingly sophisticated workers, although this may be limited by contradictory tendencies”.33 Nevertheless, even with this qualification, Vidal is set upon emphasising the positive, citing Marx to support the idea of “popular education as a fundamental force increasing the technical sophistication and managerial capabilities of workers”.34 Again, he maintains this is consistent with Marx, citing one of the latter’s statements: “Large-scale industry, through its very catastrophes, makes the recognition of variation of labour and hence of the fitness of the worker for the maximum number of different kinds of labour into a question of life and death”.35 However, this pronouncement should be read in context. Marx continues, “This possibility of varying labour must become a general law of social production, and the existing relations must be adapted to permit its realisation in practice.” Reading on, Marx did not conceive the possibility of this adaptation of social relations this side of “the inevitable conquest of political power by the working class”.36
I have not attempted to answer all Vidal’s objections of my review, but I have hopefully responded to enough of them to substantiate the claim that he has seriously misjudged the dangers of lean to workers’ interests. As part of his general argument, he acknowledges that workers have an objective interest in “replacing capitalism with socialism” and continues: “In terms of exploitation, [workers] have objective interests in replacing capitalism with socialism”.37 He also highlights workers’ interests in more immediate improvements in their lives. However, how these improvements are gained is crucial. If they stem from the pressure of independently organised workers, there is a bridge between the short-term and long-term interests. If gaining “at least some control over their work” is achieved by “participating in genuine employee involvement programmes”, as Vidal advocates, the logical position is supporting the employer and debilitating the independent organisation of workers.38 The practical result is that the focal point becomes not building class solidarity, but rather company by company incorporation into productivity drives:
Bravermanians suggest workers should shun productivity drives because the latter can lead to job loss. Yet, in a capitalist society, workers need jobs to live, and employers need to be competitive to survive. An unproductive employer, at risk of going out of business, threatens more job loss than a highly productive employer.
My argument, however, is not simply that workers have immediate interests in participating to make their work meaningful, to have some control over their work and to help keep their employers competitive.39
One response to this strategy, from a former official of the Canadian Auto Workers Union, was:
Certainly, unions are dependent on the relative success of a given employer or sector, but the goal of an independent union is not to enhance that dependence. Rather, it is to limit it through solidarity across sectors and the working class, not by strengthening each employers’ competitive position.40
Vidal hitches workers’ futures to the fortunes of their employers. Unions must not be enrolled into employers’ battles, where victory for one company is attained at the expense of the workers in another. Such approaches narrow the horizons of workers and undermine working-class unity. What Vidal advocates opens the agenda for a return to the partnership agreements between employers and unions pushed by Labour Party governments and conservative trade union leaders. For all the references to Marx, and regardless of his belief that trade unions can be built around demands for lean production, Vidal’s perspectives end in disarming any arguments for independent workers’ organisation and solidarity between workers—both at home and abroad.
Bob Carter was Professor of Work and Employment Relations at the University of Leicester. He is the author of Capitalism, Class Conflict and the New Middle Class (Routledge, 2015) as well as a number of articles on trade unions and the restructuring of public sector labour.
1 I am grateful to Paul Brook for comments on an earlier draft.
2 I owe Vidal one apology for an accidental misreading. As he says, referring to two of the companies that serve as case studies in his book, “When I said I did not have quotes of workers having conflicting views of efficiency, I was referring to Second Tier Specialist, not Custom Seats.” This was an unfortunate mistake, but it does not affect the general argument in any way.
3 Vidal, 2023, pp145-146.
4 Huw Beynon initially considered giving his Working for Ford the title “Never Buy a Ford”, but was told that “the lads in the plant wouldn’t thank you for that” as the workers’ livelihoods depended on the sale of Ford cars—see Beynon, 1973, p318.
5 Vidal, 2023, p146.
6 Vidal, 2023, p146. My emphasis.
7 Despite disclaimers, the incorporation of unions seems inevitable with a starting point that states: “The political position here is to emphasise mismanagement in terms of strategies and practices that harm or fail to improve organisational performance.”—Vidal, 2022a, p65. In the book, his reporting of the union shop chair is taken at face value: “He explained that management is trying to give the workers real opportunities to contribute to problem solving and decision making, but that the workers still have a traditional view of the responsibilities of management and labour, which is making them reluctant to take on new responsibilities they see as managerial.”—Vidal, 2022b, p181. He reports elsewhere that, at Second Tier Specialist, “The plant manager wanted to implement a high-involvement approach to lean production, with substantive worker empowerment. To facilitate this, working with the collaborationist faction of the union and the International Association of Machinists (IAM) business representative, he signed on to a high-performance work organisation partnership, using the IAM model, with the pro-union Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership as a facilitator.” The manager continued, “Now, what we do is we focus in from value stream mappings on where we need to target to get the biggest bang for the buck for the kaizen activities… I’m in the process of challenging each cell leader to perform x amount of kaizen events in their cell, but that’s just really getting rolling at this point.”—Vidal, 2022a, p57 and p58.
8 Vidal, 2023, p146.
9 Vidal, 2022b, p181.
10 Vidal 2022b, p183. Emphasis added.
11 Vidal, 2022b, p184.
12 Vidal 2022b, p184. Emphasis added.
13 Vidal 2022b, p184. Vidal’s fieldwork was completed before the 2008 economic crash. This would undoubtedly have increased pressure from primary producers for subcontractors to cut prices, thereby exacerbating cost cutting measures that would include the intensification of labour made easier by lean. We have no information on what happened to the firms that Vidal studied.
14 Where rudimentary tools can still be used, such as in painting and decorating, bricklaying and so on, workers can still opt for self-employment.
15 Marx noted, “This gives an immense impetus to the development of productivity and the more economical use of the conditions of production. It imposes on the workman an increased expenditure of labour within a given time, which remains constant, a heightened tension of labour-power and a closer filling-up of the pores of the working day.”—Marx, 1976, p534.
16 Vidal says, “[Carter] expresses shock that I code workers who say lean made their work less boring as ‘positive quantitative intensification’. Here I am guilty as charged.”—Vidal, 2023, p157. He misses the point. I was pointing to two examples of workers reacting to changes—one who had to look after two machines instead of one, and the other who liked the changes he was subjected to because he had the opportunity to “just sit there all day and watch it go by, and maybe sweep up the floor”. Both were coded as “positive qualitative intensification”. I think this renders the measurement less than useful.
17 In the process there is a greater level of exploitation. This gives rise to a sometimes unacknowledged corollary—that higher-paid workers, in better conditions, may produce more surplus value than lower-paid ones in more dangerous and insecure work. See Marx, 1976, p432.
18 Contradictory consciousness is a concept much associated with Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. It occurs within people, as opposed to just between those who, Vidal suggests, maintain an adherence to the logics of Fordism and those who are happy to embrace the logics of lean.
19 Vidal, 2023, p149.
20 An earlier publication appears to use material from the same study. In it, Vidal states, “Managers in each firm were asked to make available for interview on company time four to six workers.”—see Vidal, 2007, p255.
21 Vidal, 2022b, p184.
22 Cited by Carter, 2023, p167.
23 Vidal, 2023, p153.
24 Goldthorpe, Lockwood and others, 1968.
25 Vidal, 2022b, p223.
26 Interestingly, in the 2007 article, Vidal found no need to explain workers’ less than enthusiastic response to lean as the defence of Fordist routines and efficiencies, seeing instead resistance to lean as a result of threats to individual autonomy, increased stress and variations in individual psychology.
27 Vidal, 2022b, p71.
28 Vidal, 2022b, p71.
29 Marx, 1976, p985-986. Original emphasis.
30 Adler, 2007, p1321. Marx wrote about the need, which exists under any system of social production, for work to be coordinated and unified, stating that such work was part of the labour process, some of which was carried out as part of the dual nature of management. In my view, designing the means for the greater exploitation of workers does not fall into this category.
31 Marx, 1976, p990.
32 Vidal 2022, p79.
33 Vidal 2022, p79. With increased automation, Marx maintains, “the living connection of the whole workshop no longer lies here in cooperation; instead, the system of machinery forms a unity, set in motion by the prime motor and comprising the whole workshop, to which the living workshop is subordinated, insofar as it consists of workers. Their unity has thus taken on a form which is tangibly autonomous and independent of them.”—Marx, 2010, p30. Amazon, for instance, has socialised the retail industry, making the claim “that robotics, machine learning and other technologies in its fulfilment centres had reduced the physical burden on employees, reducing walking time and taking on repetitive tasks, and freed them up to focus on more sophisticated tasks beyond the scope of automation.”—Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2023, p27. This is, however, not the total experience of Amazon workers. Here technology and socialisation have increased the power imbalance and led to increasing stress and alienation—see Alimahomed-Wilson and Reese, 2020.
34 Vidal, 2022b, p79.
35 Marx, 1976, p618. Cited at Vidal, 2023, p159.
36 Marx, 1976, pp618-619.
37 Vidal, 2023, p148.
38 Vidal, 2023, p148.
39 Vidal, 2023, p149. Older socialists might remember the impact of a book, published in 1970, with a radically different approach to productivity—Tony Cliff’s The Employers’ Offensive: Productivity Deals and How to Fight Them (Pluto, 1970)—and how well it was received by a large number of trade unionists.
40 Rosenfeld, 2022.