Reconnecting class and production relations in an advanced capitalist knowledge economy': changing class structure and class consciousness.

Author:Livingstone, D.W.


Marx's basic contribution to modern class analysis was to show that the development of classes was inextricably bound up with the historical development of the prevailing mode of production within which they were rooted. As capitalism coalesced as a mode of industrial production, its major protagonists took shape and grew within its core structure. The well-spring of capitalism's expansion was the extraction of surplus value by capitalist owners of the means of production from the unpaid labour time of wage labourers they employed who directly produced the commodities that capitalists then sold to realize that value as profit. Many recent analysts of both classes and production relations appear to be intent on ignoring this connection between class formation and production relations. We will offer a brief critical assessment of recent approaches to class analysis and labour process analysis in capitalism. We suggest a Marxist model of current class structure grounded in relations between owners and hired labour in private enterprises. Then, empirical assessment of continuity and change in class structure are provided, based on a series of national surveys in Canada in the period 1982-2010. Finally, we offer empirical assessment of relations between class positions and expressions of class consciousness based on the same surveys.

Disconnecting class

The death of the political and economic significance of classes based in production relations in advanced industrial societies has been heralded since the end of the Second World War. Early farewells referred to increasing consumer affluence, political quiescence of industrial workers and the end of class-based ideologies (Bell 1962). Since the 1970s, the decline of manufacturing employment and labour unions, coupled with an increasing capacity of large transnational companies to relocate production operations, have drawn death notices from intellectuals who see few signs that the industrial working class can now act as a coherent political force (e.g. Gorz 1982). One of the most extended obituaries (Kingston 2000) claims that the production process itself is extremely unlikely to generate class formation because of very diverse employment conditions, high occupational mobility and experience-diversifying technologies. The emergence of cross-class social movements based on civil rights, and feminist and environmental concerns, has been highlighted in critiques of the inadequacy of existing class analyses to deal with these issues (e.g. Pakulski & Waters 1996). Most recent analyses of classes in advanced capitalist societies have ignored relations in the sphere of production per se while focusing on exchange issues (marketable skills, income levels) or have taken a cultural turn that tends to disconnect class from paid workplaces. Some of these approaches, such as those inspired by Bourdieu, purport to offer more holistic analyses of multidimensional class experience. Such approaches offer complex descriptions of current consumption patterns (Savage et al. 2013). Some who have taken the cultural turn increasingly recognize the need to reconnect with employment characteristics (Atkinson 2009; Hebson 2013). But none of these approaches offer insight into changing class relations within the capitalist labour process.

Marx's mid-19th-century analysis of the capitalist labour process was not much further developed for over a century until Braverman's (1974) book on the degradation of work in 'monopoly' capitalism. Braverman's analysis effectively redirected attention to the production process and class relations within production. Braverman's research stimulated others and was followed by several class analyses with more specific attention to relations of production (e.g. Carchedi 1977; Wright 1978). The renewed interest in production relations generated more complex models of class structure, cores and peripheries, including 'new' corporate elites, 'new' working classes, 'new' middle classes and 'new' petty bourgeoisies. Braverman also inspired a variety of case studies of the detailed social and technical division of labour (see Thompson 1983) that challenged a long prevailing focus on labour market relations. A variety of efforts were made to revise Braverman's degradation perspective, including Friedman's (1977) 'responsible autonomy' and Burawoy's (1979) attention to subjectivity and workers' consent. Thompson (1990) proposed a 'core' labour process agenda that rejected Marx's labour theory of value while attending to structured antagonisms and a control imperative to ensure firms' profitability. While this 'core' theory has animated a good deal of empirical research, it has done little to connect with broader analyses of class. Indeed, Smith and Thompson have called attempts to reconnect class analysis and labour process studies a 'sterile functionalist project' (Smith & Thompson 1999: 219) that miss the ongoing centrality of ownership and profit maximization in shaping class relations. We agree with this centrality but suggest that rejecting the labour theory of value disarms class analysis by permitting the 'dazzling appearance' of free market exchange to obscure the wellsprings of private capital accumulation in the exploitation of labour in production.

Since the 1980s, class analysis and labour process studies have become increasingly disconnected (see Carter 1995; Neilson 2007). Analytical Marxists have also dismissed Marx's labour theory of value as 'false' and 'useless', defined class structure and exploitation in terms of ownership of various assets and largely ignored production relations per se (Roemer 1982). Much employment class analysis has focused on complex arrays of occupational communities that are disconnected from actual relations of production (e.g. Grusky & Weedon 2001). Labour process research has devolved into either macro analyses of global corporate capitalist enterprise development or micro case studies of firms, both of which are disconnected from systematic employment class analysis (Jaros 2005; Tinker 2002).

A renewed Marxist approach to class relations

For Marx, the most basic driving force of class relations in capitalist economies was the exploitation of productive hired workers by the owners of private companies through the extraction of surplus value in order to maximize profits via the realization of that value in competitive commodity markets. The material interest of hired labourers to attain higher wages to improve their living conditions was a major counterforce. The dominant tendency was for techniques of production to be frequently modified to reduce the amount of living labour per unit of vendible commodities in order to continue to maximize profits. This production process was seen as a drive to commodify everything, leading to the concentration of capital, the centralization of firms and the proliferation of reserve armies of labour.

Capital now flows at an unprecedented scale and accelerated rate through a highly concentrated and centralized global financial system that has expanded enormously in proportion to productive capital in the past three decades (Vitali et al. 2011); information and transportation technologies facilitate widespread restructuring and decentralization of production systems around the globe; and many transnational corporations originating in many countries, most notably the US, have attained a global reach (Panitch & Gindin 2012).

The 20th century saw massive increases in the proportion of the global labour force dispossessed of the means of production and seeking alternative work for wages. It should be stressed here that the world capitalist system is now characterized by a hired labour force and a burgeoning relative surplus population located primarily in the developing and underdeveloped world (Neilson & Stubbs 2011). Advanced capitalist countries such as Canada are characterized by larger shares of global capital, greater shares of relatively well-paid 'knowledge workers' and lesser shares of surplus population in desperation. Our focus in the current analysis will be limited to the employed labour force in advanced capitalism on the operating assumption that the exploitation of productive hired workers by private enterprise owners continues to be relevant to the constituting of the class structure and the development of class consciousness in advanced capitalist settings.

Within advanced capitalist centres, direct manual labour continues to decline with de-industrialization and increasingly mechanized commodity production, while more intellectualized and managerial work expands, a condition now widely heralded as a 'knowledge economy' (Livingstone & Guile 2012). In such 'knowledge economies', with growing amounts of work involving processing of information, mainstream fixation with labour productivity increasingly focuses on capturing knowledge, exemplified by a diffuse knowledge theory of value that is inattentive to knowledge workers' own interests (Jacques 2000). The notion of 'knowledge workers' needs to be specified in terms of class position and working conditions. Contrary to the claims of knowledge economy advocates, the professional and managerial occupations most commonly regarded as advantaged knowledge workers now appear to be experiencing degradation of their working conditions, increasing underemployment and relegation to the reserve army of labour, much as the skilled labour of the past (Livingstone 2009).

Production whereby nature-provided materials are changed by human labour is fundamental to our survival and wellbeing. Marx's labour theory of value centering on the extraction of surplus value in the capitalist labour process has continued to be seen as essential to understanding capitalist development by lines of activists and scholars (e.g. Foley 2013; Hiroyoshi 2005). Marx's core theory has been buried frequently. But the theory of value...

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