The forces of production, lean production and management: a reply to Bob Carter

Issue: 180

Matt Vidal

My latest book, Management Divided, articulates and develops what I take to be the classical Marxist theory of the labour process, based on a study of 31 manufacturing firms in the United States.1 I theorise the labour process via a classical interpretation of Karl Marx’s historical materialism, which entails a distinction between the forces and relations of production, in which the former have a relative autonomy from the latter, and where economic development and organisational dynamics are fundamentally shaped by the contradictory ­interaction between the forces and relations.

This project entails a fundamental criticism of the labour process theory associated with Marxist political economist Harry Braverman. As I write in Management Divided:

Braverman’s contribution was monumental, inaugurating an important new research program, which has indeed documented widespread deskilling and intensification under capitalist management, past and present. Yet, Braverman presented a narrow reading of Marx, abandoning any notion of contradictory development in favour of a theory in which the problem of management is conceived as turning exclusively on the question of extracting effort from workers, where workers are theorised to have clear interests in exerting as little effort as possible, and deskilling plus standardisation is seen to be a universal solution to the management problem.2

Given this, I expected that my book would provoke heated responses. Some scholars have made entire careers deploying Bravermanian analysis. Bob Carter is one of them. Carter recently launched a scathing attack on me in this journal.

In Management Divided, I wrote of Bravermanian scholarship:

These scholars do important work, showing that lean production can be used in a way that increases work intensification via speed-up and reducing or eliminating production buffers… A 2013 study by Bob Carter and colleagues documented increased work volume, pace and intensity under lean production being associated with fatigue, musculoskeletal disorders and stress…

I agree…that capitalism is an economic system based in class antagonism…but I disagree with these scholars on two points: that the employer-employee relation is always, in every respect, zero-sum; and that lean management is primarily and universally a management model for work intensification and work degradation.3

There is a third point of fundamental disagreement, which was implicit in Management Divided but should be made explicit. I disagree with the Bravermanian theory that management is inherently capitalist and all managers are exclusively preoccupied with disempowering labour.

In this response, I demonstrate that Carter systematically misrepresents my intentions, argument and evidence base; he cherry picks my evidence and dismisses the bulk of it; and he fundamentally misunderstands my theoretical arguments and contributions.

I begin with an illustration of some findings that made me question Braverman’s theory of management and encouraged me to seek to develop a Marxist theory of heterogeneous orientations and overlapping interests in the capitalist labour process. I then summarise my interpretation of ­historical materialism and lean production, my evidence base and my theories of ­management, work intensification and alienated commitment. I conclude with a discussion of capitalist inefficiency and workers’ control.

The capitalist labour process: heterogenous orientations and overlapping interests

Carter’s criticisms misrepresent my intentions in Management Divided. One of my central empirical findings is that, in the 22 supplier factories I observed, managers “prioritise qualitative process improvement over quantitative work intensification”. Moreover, only one out of the 52 workers I interviewed (from 12 factories) complained of work intensification. However, Carter claims (misrepresentation #1):

Vidal is aware of the left-committed studies demonstrating a catalogue of harmful effects resulting from lean production systems, but he does not address them directly… Vidal’s concern to validate his thesis appears to lead him towards being selective in the use of data that suggest competing explanations of workers’ (and managers’) experiences and motivations.4

In fact, I directly address every single study I am aware of that finds negative outcomes for workers under lean production methods.5 In all cases, I accept their findings on lean production being used to intensify work in the organisations they studied, but I contest the broader interpretation of lean production as inherently about deskilling and intensification.

In the preface to Management Divided, I explain how my method was precisely the opposite of seeking to validate a preexisting thesis. When I entered the field, based on findings from these earlier studies and on theory from Braverman, David Gordon and Richard Edwards, I expected to observe similar outcomes.6 However:

My interviews and observations in US 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.7

Faced with what I took as an empirical fact, I set out to understand these observations through a deep reading of Marx, rather than forcing a Bravermanian interpretation on to my findings.

The manager of a low-volume union job shop with around 90 workers, who make hydraulic presses for industrial customers, articulated his vision of a high-involvement approach to lean production: to be able to “move the people to where the work is, and to have them as highly trained and able to run different machines, perform different operations, as possible.” He was training the workers in “how to do brainstorming, problem solving analysis, root-cause analysis, those sorts of things…team building.” His goal was to get to a point where workers drive continuous improvement on their own, including “having team meetings that just involve the people out there on the factory floor”.

This manager enthusiastically signed a partnership agreement with the union, in which he agreed to “share decision-making around the vital functions that are critical to the business, its costs and the processes” as well as to “a jointly developed strategic business plan”. I observed 13 two-hour “labour-management partnership” meetings and two “worker education committee” meetings at this factory.

I also interviewed five workers from this company. In reference to ­cross-training, one machinist said, “It makes us more into overall machinists rather than machine operators.” On worker participation, another machinist stated, “The overall input as far as how the machines go together in the particular cell to produce the product—that was basically our input.” On the labour-management partnership, a third machinist, the union president, said, “We’ve got hourly cell lead people that are involved… We’ve got more committees than we had before. We have union involvement.”

Three of the workers said they had not experienced any work ­intensification under lean. A fourth, a machinist, described qualitative intensification that improved his job by making it more challenging, because he now had to be “more concerned with what comes across the table, as opposed to just making a rod or an endcap”, and became familiar “with customer names” and so on. A fifth worker, also a machinist, described how quantitative intensification improved his job by making it less boring:

Definitely less bored because there’s more flexibility, and you’re able to stay busy longer. And as long as you stay—if you don’t have to look at a time clock, or the clock, it moves faster. As soon as you look at that clock, it moves slower. So, if we’re busy, to any reasonable speed, reasonable amount of effort, a steady pace, then it would be better because then we can move.

Another example is a non-union producer of industrial pumps. The manager discussed extensively cross-training the workforce, with the goal of having team members “feel comfortable saying, ‘Hey, I think we want to try this.’ And we can say, ‘Well, if you’ve got to have a day to do it, do it.’ And get the guys together and do it.”

A shipping and receiving worker from this factory described qualitative intensification improving his job by making it more challenging while also noting more generally that lean has made his job “better” and “easier”:

Just in time has affected our job a lot, because it has bettered our job but also made it more—you have to keep under it all the time. You have to make sure you know all the inventory that you have almost all the time… Actually, it’s gotten easier… I think it has made my job more satisfying. I mean, it’s been… It’s a challenge. Every day is a challenge. It’s not a hard job, but it’s a job where, like I say, you have to be real attentive too.8

When I questioned a senior assembler in this factory, he described having more control under lean:

Can you talk about some of the big differences you’ve seen in your job after lean production?

We did a lot of time studies. We did some videotaping of some of the activities to find out where the wastes were… I feel like I’ve got a better handle on my job, and I have a little bit more control.

Mm-hmm, so you do feel like you have more control?

Yeah, I do… Through the value stream, you’re finding out where the processes start out, you know, in doing the maps and finding out what is an outside vendor issue and what isn’t. I’ve been able to approach…purchasing and ask them about when something is going to come in and not feel like, “Oh, I’m stepping out of my bounds.”

In response to this evidence, Carter gives the standard Bravermanian response, arguing such participation must be universally rejected because, by engaging in it, workers “collaborate in promoting interests that are hostile to their own”.9 Without offering any ideas of his own on this theme, Carter defers to Guglielmo Carchedi:

Knowledge produced by mental labour subject to capitalist relations of production must be informed by the rationality of capital, not by the rationality of labour. The two are diametrical opposites. The former is informed by exploitation, competition and inequality; the latter, by egalitarianism, cooperation and self-management.10

What is this rationality of labour? Here, Carchedi conflates principles of socialism—“egalitarianism, cooperation and self-management”—with a so-called rationality of labour. In doing so, he reifies the working class, imputing a single, highly abstract interest to it.

Against this, as Marx taught, it is important to distinguish the objectively defined working class—labour as a class-in-itself—from its potential to become class conscious: a class-for-itself. Marx’s analysis is premised on the fact that, for workers, “competition divides their interests”.11 Note the plural: workers’ interests, which can be divided. In Management Divided, I write, “As Theo Nichols and Peter Armstrong astutely observed long ago, workers are often internally divided due to contradictions in their experiences and in the ideological currents within and beyond the workplace”.12 The theory I develop in Management Divided is an attempt to understand the competing rationalities within the workforce that are associated with the contradictory experiences of workers.

Marx argued that, if the working class is to constitute “itself as a class for itself”, isolated union struggles, taking the economic form of struggle over wages, must be transformed into an explicitly political struggle. It is only then, when the working class is organised as a political force seeking its own self-emancipation via the abolition of capitalism, that “the interests it defends become class interests”.13

To be sure, Marx saw the interests of workers and capitalists as opposed in both economic terms (wages) and political terms (private property).14 The working class as a class-in-itself includes all those workers who are exploited by having their surplus labour extracted as profit; they generally have no authority or limited authority in the workplace, and have few meaningful ways to participate in democratic governance at any level. In terms of exploitation, they have objective interests in replacing capitalism with socialism.

However, in terms of making their daily lives better, lessening their subjection to despotic authority and increasing their ability to have at least some control over their work, workers have immediate interests in participating in genuine employee involvement programmes. To be sure, many such programmes are superficial at best. Nonetheless, my findings show that some employers do offer genuine opportunities for workers to gain some problem solving authority or to participate in group decision-making, both via participation programmes and labour-management partnerships.

Deploying an abstract precept—conflicting class interests—to preclude participation at work is perverse. It seems rather than listening to how workers articulate their own interests, as they understand them, Carter would argue with and instruct them about what their true interests are, privileging theoretical abstraction over their lived experience.

In addition to participating in decisions that impact their working lives, workers have other immediate interests that Marxist theory and “left-committed” politics should appreciate and incorporate. Workers have interests in making their work meaningful (a point to which I return below). They have interests in gaining skills that can help them progress to higher level jobs and occupations. Indeed, they have interests in ensuring they have a job, and thus they have an interest in their employer being and remaining competitive. Bravermanians suggest workers should shun productivity drives because these can lead to job losses. Yet, in a ­capitalist society, workers need jobs to live, and employers need to be competitive to survive. An unproductive employer that is at risk of going out of business threatens more job losses than a highly productive employer.

My argument, however, is not simply that workers have immediate interests in participating in initiatives that make their work more meaningful, give them some control over their work and help their employers to stay competitive. I am trying to make a case, to which I return below, that a renewed movement for workers’ control should entail unions seeking to proactively shape business strategy and policy, rather than simply attempting to block or limit management initiatives, as has been advocated by Carter and others such as Marxist theorist Ernest Mandel.15

Productive forces, growth stages and lean production

In relation to my interpretation of historical materialism, Carter again ­misrepresents my contribution (misrepresentation #2), this time primarily through “argumentum ad hominem”, attempting to poison the well by ­suggesting my theory construction is “loose” and based on “nominal” and “fragmentary references to Marx”.16 His entire engagement with my theory consists of two dismissive sentences:

Vidal argues that managerial strategies are contradictory, stemming from “the underlying contradiction between the forces and relations of production”. Again, the reference to Marx is purely nominal, with Vidal simplifying the relationship between the labour process (as part of the forces of production) and the valorisation process.17

In fact, I begin chapter 3 of Management Divided, which develops my theory, with 14 pages of sustained engagement with Marx and Marxist theory, including nine full pages dedicated exclusively to a close reading and textual exposition of Marx on the labour and valorisation processes, alienation, the dual roles of management, and socialisation.18 I summarise this analysis—again systematically referencing Marx—in chapter 1.19

Implicitly invoking the relative autonomy of the productive forces, I argue:

Marx expected that, as the forces of production continue to develop, at some point the ­relations of production would begin to fetter their further development. More broadly, he theorised the forces of production and relations of production as existing in a contradictory relation, giving rise to contradictions within the capitalist labour process…

Within capitalism the labour process contains a valorisation process, but these are in a contradictory relation. This relation is expressed in the dual role of managers: on the one hand, they play a productive role in coordination and planning; on the other hand, they play an unproductive role in ensuring discipline within the workforce.20

I argue that Marx theorised “a process of upgrading the capabilities of humans and technology over time based on the progressive accumulation of scientific and technical knowledge”.21 I quote the Communist Manifesto’s description of capitalism as having given “immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land” and “a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country”.22

I emphasise the theme of productive socialisation, quoting Marx’s statement in the Grundrisse that capitalism “produces not only the alienation of the individual from himself and from others, but also the universality and the ­comprehensiveness of his relations and capacities”.23 I also quote Marx in Capital on how “it is only socialised labour that is capable of applying the general products of human development, such as mathematics, to the immediate process of production”.24 Furthermore, I underline Marx’s insistence that:

Modern industry never views or treats the existing form of a production process as the definitive one. Its technical basis is therefore revolutionary… It is continually transforming not only the technical basis of production, but also the functions of the worker and the social combinations of the labour process.25

I use this theoretical foundation to propose that: “A long-term, progressive trend toward productive socialisation is inherent to capitalist development, but it is distorted and retarded by short-term concerns with securing surplus value”.26

I discuss Marx’s stage theory of development, proposing that, from Marx’s stage of “manufacture” through to the Fordist stage, deskilling was the singular logic of capitalist management. I explicitly argue that deskilling remains the dominant tendency today.27 Yet, in the post-Fordist stage, where competition puts a premium on quality and flexibility, two new logics have emerged: lean production and worker empowerment. I suggest upskilling/empowerment of labour is a weak tendency—systematically retarded by capitalist relations of production—but a real tendency nonetheless.

Particularly in the post-Fordist era, with global competition:

The problem of securing sufficient labour effort—the valorisation problem—is only part of the problem of labour management. Managers must also determine issues regarding the organisation and management of the broader labour process: the overall division of labour, the use of technology (beyond and in addition to concerns with ensuring workforce discipline), the scale and scope of production, workflow, production control, quality control, problem solving, and continuous improvement.28

It is these intense pressures regarding quality, flexibility and continuous improvement that are behind the past six decades of managerial experiments with various forms of job rotation, cross-training, employee involvement and teamwork. Lean production has diffused across global manufacturing and beyond because “what makes it distinctive, more than Taylorism on steroids, is a set of principles and practices for process control and the qualitative improvement of operational routines”.29

In short, lean production is a general management system, a relatively autonomous development in the productive forces. It must be distinguished from capitalist management strategies of deskilling and work intensification.

The question of evidence

Carter systematically misrepresents my evidence (misrepresentation #3), seeking to diminish and discredit my data rather than engage with it. He asserts that “Vidal’s focus is short term and myopic, privileging the voice of management” and that “the complainers remain voiceless”. He further asserts, “Vidal seems wilfully blind to other significant information from worker interviews that would be highlighted in any evaluation of lean production from a worker perspective.” Finally, he suggests, “A relatively small number of workers were interviewed—59 workers in 31 firms (less than two per company)—and it is not specified how they were selected”.30

It is quite something for a scholar who has published interpretative research to question the validity of a study based on the number of interviews. It is equally baffling to suggest 59 in-depth interviews is a “relatively small number”. Relative to what? As clearly explained in Management Divided, the 52 workers came from 12 supplier factories (four to five per company), and seven were from prime contractors (where my focus was on supply chain management rather than work organisation). In total, the transcripts from the 52 worker interviews amount to 643 pages of single-spaced, 12-point font. This is an incredibly rich database.

Still, these interviews constitute only part of a much larger qualitative study:

I interacted with 486 people from 59 organisations over a total of 332 hours. I conducted in-depth interviews with 109 individuals in 31 manufacturing firms across the US states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois (totalling 163 hours). I also conducted 169 hours of direct observation on 59 occasions.31

On the charge of treating management’s opinion as fact, Management Divided explicitly discusses how I triangulate my findings with worker interviews and with extended case studies of three companies, including following two union suppliers over a 16-month period, observing 19 labour-management partnership committee meetings, and one non-union supplier over a 20-month period, including 19 hours of observation of a supplier development project run by a large industrial customer.

The charge that I “privilege the voice of management” and that “the ­complainers remain voiceless” is a particularly egregious attempt to ­misrepresent my work. Chapter 6, which contains 16,031 words, is an empirical chapter ­dedicated to presenting “the voice of every single worker I interviewed in a supplier factory: some 52 workers in total, across 12 companies”.32 It consists entirely of extended discussions with the workers, often presenting discussions that run for several paragraphs, focusing on what they like and dislike about their jobs. Chapter 7, containing 13,237 words, is an empirical chapter focusing on worker orientations, resistance and participation. With a few exceptions, where I quote a few managers, chapter 7 consists almost entirely of quotations from workers.

A central point of both chapters is to present worker evaluations of lean production and of their workplace in their own words. Rather than directly engaging this evidence, let alone accept it, Carter attempts to dismiss it.

First, making an “argumentum ad populum”, that is, an argument based on the idea that what is generally accepted must be true, he appeals to previous findings: “The most detailed sociological studies have been unanimous that lean harms workers.”

Second, lamely, he suggests my data are no longer relevant: “Changed economic circumstances that followed have possibly eliminated some of the companies and changed others into ones much less interested in worker voice and more focused on cost-cutting”.33 He does not explain why managers would have changed their orientations and strategies. My argument is that the high-skill, high-involvement approach to lean is far more dynamically efficient—considering continuous improvement over time—and flexible than an approach based on deskilling and intensification. My hypothesis is that the high-involvement lean firms are most prepared to thrive in “changed economic circumstances”.

Finally, Carter cherry-picks a handful of quotes in an attempt to undermine my interpretation. I quote a manager discussing their attempts to simplify and standardise work. Carter seizes on this, writing:

In the face of this clear intention to simplify work and deskill workers, Vidal attempts to present the company very differently: “In my reading of the Custom Seats case, management was genuinely offering real opportunities for substantive empowerment, including multi-skilling, problem solving and decision-making”.34

In the sentence immediately preceding the one he quoted, I note the manager “described a form of Taylorist work simplification, but seeing this as pure ­deskilling is too reductive”.35 As Adler has argued, and Management Divided robustly illustrates, Taylorist task simplification and ­standardisation remain central to lean, but alongside this is the potential expansion of other worker capabilities for process and quality control via cross-training, devolved responsibilities, and team-based forms of problem solving and ­decision-making.36 The latter is a limited but nonetheless emergent tendency in post-Fordist capitalism.

I discuss the dissatisfied workers at this company, Custom Seats, for five full pages, presenting extensive, multiple-paragraph quotes from these workers airing their complaints, including sustained evidence that they were frustrated because they saw lean production as inefficient, not because they were deskilled.37 Carter again deliberately attempts to misrepresent:

Vidal…immediately suggests, however, that their real problem was something else, radically reinterpreting their motivations: “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.” Admitting that he did not have “quotes from these workers expressing conflicting views of efficiency” did not deter him because he was “able to include quotes here from workers at the remaining plants with overt resistance”.

This is a deliberate misrepresentation: when I said I did not have quotes of workers having conflicting views of efficiency, I was referring to the Second Tier Specialist factory, not Custom Seats.38 I present sustained evidenced showing Custom Seats workers thought “the new system was inefficient and would be harmful for the company”. According to one worker, “One-piece flow, it just doesn’t make any sense to me… Everything is non-productive as far as I’m concerned… It was a productive company, a prosperous company. And I don’t see it.” A second worker said, “I don’t understand the point of what they did.” For a third, cells cause “a lot of chaos”: “They’ve got four people over there doing what I used to do by myself… I just don’t see how that’s benefiting anybody or anything… They didn’t learn enough about it before they put it into effect.”

Management divisions: contradictory pressures and competing orientations

Carter also misrepresents my theory of management (misrepresentation #4). Drawing on my discussion of the elimination of job controls (narrow job classifications) in current union contracts, he claims, “Vidal gives the impression that such defences are no longer needed because today’s managers can be taken at their word and prime importance is placed on quality, not rationalisation and cost-cutting”.39

To be sure, I do note that: “The managers I interviewed were interested in qualitatively improving their labour processes, not in maximising quantitative intensification or control”.40 Yet, in the same paragraph I acknowledge that most of the workers in these factories will have had a “lifetime of working for bad, incompetent or vindictive managers”. A few pages later, continuing this theme, I refer to workers’ experience with “aborted management initiatives, failed initiatives, top-down management and bad management”.41

I explicitly argue that managers in auto assembly and other low-margin or labour-intensive sectors are likely to adopt strategies of work intensification and deskilling. I suggest that even in factories that supply complex parts and assemblies, where margins are higher, “Some managers do not substantively empower their workers because they continue to be influenced (in a top-down process) by the logic of Taylorism”.42 One of my central findings is that only 10 of 22 factories in my sample adopted a logic of empowerment.

The broader argument is that management is divided in two ways. First, ­individual managers experience contradictory sets of pressures to both deskill/disempower and to upskill/empower labour. Second, managers have different orientations. My focus in Management Divided is on whether ­managers adopt a logic of Taylorism or empowerment. However, the ­argument about competing orientations is much more expansive than this.

Carter suggests “the class analysis of managers” was “not attempted by Vidal”. The class analysis in the book is, admittedly, light and implicit. So, let me make it explicit here. Since Carter did not offer any original thoughts on the class analysis of management, I will address Carchedi, to whom Carter again defers.

Carchedi explicitly abstracts from “concrete society” to emphasise the “decisive point” that “managers have real ownership of the means of production and thus are part of the hierarchical and bureaucratic complex that performs the global function of capital and consequently either exploits or economically oppresses the proletariat”. Managers, in short, are “capital personified”.43

If we restrict this assessment of “management” to “those who are at the top of the social structure”, as I read Carchedi to mean, then I agree.44 Indeed, I have made the same argument in this journal, writing that managers have “dense organic ties with the capitalist class proper (owners of the means of production), including the sharing of authority over wage workers and/or involvement in organisational policy-making, and a deep financial stake in the capitalist system”.45 However, my argument there was too broad brush, and I want to revise it slightly here.

It is high-level managers that have dense organic ties with the capitalist class and broad overlapping interests. By contrast, the middle and lower layers of management are in contradictory class locations.46 These managers—including the factory managers that are the focus of Management Divided—do not have effective control over the means of production, but are subject to the control, dictates and whims of senior management and market competition. Similar to the working class, they may face work intensification and redundancy. Moreover, they are likely to have worked their way up to a management position from a wage-labour position.

It is for these reasons that they may have contradictory consciousness rather than simply being capital personified. Some may be interested in being a good manager and trying to provide good jobs. Some may see the “high road” approach to organisational performance, emphasising employee development and engagement, as superior to the deskilling approach. Organisations adopting such a high road approach will have more capabilities than those who adopt a deskilling approach.

The question of work intensification

Carter’s only engagement with my evidence on work intensification again misrepresents my work (misrepresentation #5). He provides a quote from a worker I coded as positive qualitative intensification, attempting to show my coding is dubious: “You start the machine up and everything comes out perfect… That’s what I like doing. Like, I don’t have to do anything…just sit there all day and watch it go by, and maybe sweep up the floor.”

In fact, for this worker I present a transcript extract that is nearly two full pages.47 Carter picked the part of this that was not the basis for my coding decision. I coded that worker as “positive qualitative intensification” based on his explanation that job rotation and being responsible for machine changeovers both reduce boredom:

Well, when I got hired, I was primarily packing… Yeah, my boss is pretty good about shuffling us around, because picking parts gets pretty tedious…

Yeah, one of the good things is that you’re not doing the same thing every day, all week. You know, the parts are different… Changeovers are actually good because you don’t look at the clock all day, you know. I usually look up, all of a sudden two hours went by, you know, instead of watching it every minute while you’re packing parts. No, you never know what you’re going to get every day you walk in.

Are there any specific aspects of the job here that you either particularly like or particularly dislike?

Well, I don’t like… It gets boring packing parts for eight hours.

Carter expresses shock that I code workers who say lean production made their work less boring as “positive quantitative intensification”. Here I am guilty as charged.

Overall, just one of 52 workers complained that work intensification had made their job worse; 39 workers said they had not experienced any work intensification under lean production; and 12 workers discussed intensification that they said to have improved their job. Two of these said that ­quantitative intensification had made the work less boring, eight referred positively to increased intellectual demands at work, and two mentioned both.

Of course, Carter does not accept these findings as such. Instead, his line of criticism is twofold. First, he asserts, “Where there is direct evidence of quantitative increases in demands, Vidal has a methodology that negates its significance by relying on workers’ reactions to changes”.48 This attempt to dismiss my findings is disturbing—after all, who else but workers can tell us what their work experience means to them?

Second, he changes the subject, failing to address the point in question: “Vidal throughout avoids systematically examining quantitative measures of intensity and the implications for rates of exploitation”.49 The whole point of my analysis, however, is to understand how workers experience lean production. I am not sure what Carter thinks quantitative measures could demonstrate that would be more important than a worker’s own assessment of whether lean has made their work too fast paced or less boring, too demanding or more challenging.

I invite readers to read the full 16,031-word chapter and make up their own mind on my coding and evidence.

My argument is that only a small subset of managers embrace the logic of lean production as focused on qualitative process improvement over quantitative work intensification. As one manger articulated:

In the past you would have measures such as optimum up-time on a machine, you know, how much is that machine running. Who gives a shit? Do what needs to be done to get the orders out, don’t make extra inventory unless you absolutely need it…train your workers so they move to where the work is and perform the work you need, don’t have them doing work that doesn’t need to be done right now!50

Again, I invite readers to review for themselves the evidence I present across 204 pages over six empirical chapters.

Alienated commitment and routine politics of production

Carter misrepresents my theory of alienation (misrepresentation #6), asserting, “Nowhere does Vidal offer a formal exposition of the concept”.51 In fact, I explicitly define alienation as follows:

Selling one’s labour is an objective form of alienation—submitting to the authority of another—that may generate subjective feelings of powerlessness due to lack of control over one’s labour and feelings of apathy and meaninglessness due to work being directed by another rather than being a self-driven expression of creativity.52

In my exposition of the concept, after I summarise my interpretation of Marx on alienation, I discuss how it has been theorised by six leading labour process scholars: Braverman, Edwards, William Lazonick, Michael Burawoy, Hugh Willmott and Randy Hodson.53 In Braverman’s analysis, workers ­“surrender their interest in the labour process”.54 I offer an alternative theory of alienation, rooted in Marx’s theory of species-being:

The drive to express oneself creatively through labour is a fundamental human characteristic that is not extinguished by the alienating nature of the capitalist employment relation… A desire to creatively express oneself, realise a purpose or feel pride leads many workers to attempt to mitigate their alienation by embracing their work, becoming committed to doing high-quality, efficient work.55

Some workers who displayed this alienated commitment embraced a Fordist logic of efficiency (maximising machine uptime), thus seeing lean strategies as inefficient and basing their resistance on this perceived inefficiency.

Carter fundamentally misunderstands this argument, suggesting my analysis amounts to: “Workers did not engage in this behaviour (resistance to changed routines) for rational or material interests”.56 In fact, my argument is an attempt to understand the rationality of their resistance. In contesting lean production as inefficient, such workers are adopting a Fordist rationality. I refer to contestation over routines—focused on competing visions of efficiency and rooted in distinct logics (rationalities)—as “routine politics of production”.

Capitalist inefficiency and workers’ control

Carter misrepresents my argument a seventh time, stating that I am “promoting a particular version” of lean that I see as delivering on a promise to offer upskilling and worker empowerment. He suggests I have no evidence to support my claim that “high involvement lean production implementers were more efficient than partial implementers”.

I do not promote lean production. My goal is to understand lean production as the dominant post-Fordist production model. I advocate a high-involvement approach in which workers are broadly cross-trained and given authority to participate in problem solving and decision-making.

My argument is that the rise and institutionalisation of lean production—which explicitly includes as core principles worker participation in quality control and continuous improvement—is part and parcel of an emergent tendency within ­capitalism toward the upskilling/empowerment of labour. I draw on Marx’s ­discussions of the ever-changing nature of the labour process due to capitalist dynamism and technical change, and I suggest that Marx theorised this tendency: “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”.57

My argument is that the high-involvement approach to lean production is at the technological frontier, but that capitalist management in general will fail to adopt the upskilling/empowerment approach because managers are “satisficers”, who settle for good enough rather than maximising profit: “Capitalist management is systematically producing inefficiency.” My goal, I explain, is “to ground a critique that goes much further than the focus on deskilling and intensification in attacking the legitimacy of capitalism, which rests on the assumption that private, for-profit firms maximise technical efficiency and that markets maximise allocative efficiency while ensuring technical efficiency through competitive discipline.58

I distinguish short-term, static efficiencies—which produce cheap goods or services at the expense of workers’ health and safety, product and service quality, and the environment—from dynamic efficiency, which is focused on taking into account long-term costs, eliminating externalities, and developing and using labour “to its fullest potential”.59 This argument, I think, is in the same spirit as Carchedi’s reference to “the rationality of labour”.60

My goal is to distinguish profit from efficiency. In the age of ecological crisis, efficiency matters. I try to reclaim efficiency as a motive distinct from profit and, indeed, capitalism: “The underlying source of efficiency improvements and innovation is not the market or profit motive, but rather human intellect and creativity”.61 I suggest “workers and their unions can use the language of efficiency, flexibility and learning to push managers toward a high-involvement approach to lean”.62 Carter dismisses this as advocating “semantic ­disputes”. Yet, I argue unions should use militant tactics if and when necessary, while ­articulating their own approach to lean production and organisational performance, forcing management to adopt a ­high-involvement approach focused on dynamic and sustainable efficiency.63

On the question of evidence, I present six empirical chapters of systematic, sustained analysis showing that what I call the “learning-lean” approach—fusing high-involvement with a focus on implementing lean as a system—is able to institutionalise routines for quality, flexibility and continuous improvement in a way that no other management system or approach is able to do.

In addition to my primary data, I present a statistical study based on a sample of supplier firms in the US Midwest—the site of my study—showing that “the majority of factories are clustered in the middle of the distribution” and that “the top 10 percent outperform the median in value added per employee by 160 percent.64 I present a systematic review of the quantitative evidence on performance (both on lean and on employee involvement) suggesting that the high-involvement approach to lean production generates superior outcomes.65

The point of my argument is that factories with high-skill, high-involvement approaches achieve superior performance, that such performance is rare because capitalist managers are satisficers, and that capitalism is increasingly failing at the one thing at which it is supposed to excel: efficiency. I frame this in a historical materialist argument that we are witnessing the fettering of the further development of the forces of production. I argue that socialist relations of production would be required to fully unleash this further development of the productive forces.

Unfortunately, Carter is so committed to his abstract, preconceived view of management that he is unable to engage with my argument and evidence in good faith. It is difficult not to read many, if not all, of the seven ways in which Carter misrepresents Management Divided as deliberate. Again, I hope readers will read the book and make up their own mind.

Matt Vidal is Reader in Sociology and Comparative Political Economy at Loughborough University.


1 Paul Adler kindly provided feedback on a draft of this article.

2 Vidal, 2022a, p11.

3 Vidal, 2022a, pp7-8 and 321-322. The study mentioned here is “‘Stressed Out of My Box’: Employee Experience of Lean Working and Occupational Ill-health in Clerical Work in the UK Public Sector”—see Carter, Danford and others, 2013a.

4 Carter, 2023, pp157 and 162; Vidal, 2022a, p8.

5 These include the following studies: Carter, Danford and others, 2011 and 2013a; Carter, Danford and others, 2013b; Danford, 1999; Fucini and Fucini, 1990; Graham, 1995; Parker, 1985; Parker and Slaughter, 1995; Rinehart, Huxley and Robertson, 1997; Stewart, Richardson and others, 2009, pp46-50. References to Carter’s own work in this field can be found in Vidal, 2022a, pp7-8, 157, 199, 317, 320 and 323.

6 Braverman, 1974; Edwards, 1979; Gordon, 1976; Gordon, Edwards and Reich, 1982.

7 Vidal, 2022a, pvii.

8 Emphasis added.

9 Carter, 2023, p157.

10 Carchedi, 2022, p15. Quoted in Carter, 2023.

11 Marx, 1975.

12 Vidal, 2022a, p317. See Nichols and Armstrong, 1976.

13 Marx, 1975, pp172-173.

14 Marx, 1975, pp166-175.

15 Mandel, 1969.

16 Carter, 2023, pp160, 161, 169 and 172.

17 Carter, 2023, p161.

18 Vidal, 2022a, pp70-79.

19 Vidal, 2022a, pp13-15.

20 Vidal, 2022a, pp14-15.

21 Vidal, 2022a, p78.

22 Marx and Engels, 1978, p475.

23 Marx, 1993, p162.

24 Marx, 1990, p1024.

25 Marx, 1990, pp483 and 617.

26 The quote is from Vidal, 2022a, p79. This line of analysis draws on Adler, 1990 and 2007.

27 Vidal, 2022a, pp19, 76 and 322.

28 Vidal, 2022a, p310.

29 Vidal, 2022a, p323.

30 Carter, 2023, p162.

31 Vidal, 2022a, p34.

32 Vidal, 2022a, p158.

33 Carter, 2023, pp157-158.

34 Carter, 2023, p167.

35 Vidal, 2022a, p223.

36 Adler, 2007.

37 Vidal, 2022a, pp223-228.

38 Vidal, 2022a, p223.

39 Carter, 2023, p167.

40 Vidal, 2022a, p201.

41 Vidal, 2022a, p208.

42 Vidal, 2022a, p318.

43 Carchedi, 1977, pp114 and 85.

44 Carchedi, 1977, p85.

45 Carter, 2021; Vidal, 2018.

46 Wright, 1997.

47 Vidal, 2022a, pp196-197.

48 Carter, 2023, p165. Emphasis added.

49 Carter, 2023, p164.

50 Vidal, 2022a, p284.

51 Carter, 2023, p160.

52 Vidal, 2022a, pp68-69.

53 Edwards, 1979; Lazonick, 1990; Burawoy, 1982; Hodson, 2001; Willmott, 1990.

54 Braverman, 1974, p39.

55 Vidal, 2022a, p74.

56 Carter, 2023, p166.

57 Marx, 1990, p618.

58 Vidal, 2022a, pp4 and 41.

59 Vidal, 2022a, p12.

60 Carchedi, 1977.

61 Vidal, 2022a, p41.

62 Vidal, 2022a, p326.

63 I have elaborated on this position in Vidal, 2022b.

64 Vidal, 2022a, pp117 and 315.

65 Vidal, 2022a, p57-64.


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