'They can't be the buffer any longer': front-line managers and class relations under white-collar lean production.

Author:Carter, Bob


The 1970s produced a significant debate within sociology on the rise of a new middle class that, unlike the middle class of independent producers and the self-employed, was intimately connected to developments within capitalist labour processes. Within the debate, Poulantzas (1975) and Carchedi (1977) emphasised the specific social relations of those who, while not owning the means of production, carry out functions on behalf of capital. Braverman (1974) was also central to the debate, as his contribution to labour process analysis centred on the increased division of labour and the creation of new roles to superintend the performance of reconfigured labour as workers' knowledge was progressively captured, codified and desublimated into the growing hierarchies of control. These hierarchies resulted in the increased division of managerial work and the diminution of the hitherto extensive power of front-line managers (FLMs), as managerial hierarchies became staffed increasingly by graduate intakes (Child and Partridge 1982). So powerful was this tendency that in a number of accounts, managerial and supervisory employees were characterised as being proletarianised as they experienced 'greater insecurity, stress, [and] decline in pay relative to senior management' (Scarborough and Burrell 1996: 185), and were conceptualised as wage labour and members of the working class (Meiksins 1986; Smith and Thompson 1999).

Today, theories focusing on the centrality of workplace relations in the generation of class relations have all but disappeared (Atkinson 2009), overshadowed firstly by what Crompton (2008) termed the 'employment aggregate' approach to class', associated with Goldthorpe (1980) and Erik Olin Wright (1997), and secondly by more cultural analyses influenced by Bourdieu's (1986) emphasis on cultural and social, as opposed to economic, capital (Savage 2000; Skeggs 1997; Hebson 2009). Where there is contemporary concern with groups at work that might be still termed 'new middle class', excessive weight rests on subjectivity and the ontological insecurity of managers, (see, for instance, Thomas and Linstead 2002; Willmott 1997). Even theorists who continue to acknowledge their debt to Braverman now eschew the connection between class and the labour process as crude and unhelpful (Hassard et al. 2009). The legacies of Carchedi and Poulantzas fare no better, with Smith and Thompson (1999: 219) dismissing them as being concerned with 'the very sterile functionalist project of manufacturing classes out of the technical division of labor'. Indeed, all theories relating labour process perspectives to class analysis are rejected in toto, as 'attempts ... to reconnect the analysis to class theory ... are flawed enterprises' (1999: 205).

This paper takes issue with these conclusions to return to social class and the workplace, not in terms of a long British tradition of determining class through subjective self-classification (see Nichols 1979 for an effective critique of this approach, and Marks and Baldry 2009 for its continuation), but rather utilising much ignored Carchedian perspectives on the class relations entered into during production. Of course, class relations in capitalist societies are manifested beyond production. Indeed, Marx's detailed examination of class within the production process was entitled 'Results of the Immediate Production Process' (Marx 1976). That class relations were not restricted to this sphere was indicated both by his stress on the 'immediate' and through other works, such as Class Struggles in France (2007). Nevertheless, despite this qualification, focus on relations in 'the hidden abode of production' (Marx 1976: 279-80), with an attendant concentration on ownership, control, and the production of surplus, was central; and now, as then, these relations are frequently ignored or obscured.

This article examines the changing class relations reflected in, and mediated by, the roles played by front-line managers (hereafter FLMs) in Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC). The object of the research is significant for its size. HMRC employed over 90,000 workers when it was established in 2005 by the merger of Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue, a figure that had been reduced to 67,000 by 2010. The department is responsible for the administration and collection of taxes, ranging from income to corporation tax and National Insurance contributions, as well as the distribution of Child Trust Funds and the payment of Tax Credits. The progressive implementation of changes in workplace organisation took place from 2005 onwards under the rubric of lean production (or 'Lean', as it is became known), which was a purported means by which services could be maintained and improved despite the reduction in headcount. The changes comprised the adoption of classic Taylorist work-study techniques, task fragmentation, ICT-enabled changes in flow, standard operating procedures, and arbitrary hourly targets. Documenting these changes extends our knowledge of lean production to white-collar work, thereby adding to accounts of the intensification of work in the automotive industry (Stewart et al. 2009), as well as to earlier studies highlighting the impact of lean production on the health and safety of workers (Lewchuk and Robertson 1997). Elsewhere, closer parallels are drawn to these works, dealing with the degradation of work, the relationship of Lean to new public management, the impact on workers' health and safety and industrial relations, and the performance of the trade union (Carter et al. 201 la; 201 lb and 2013a; 2012 and 2013b). The primary focus here is on the exercise of authoritarian management and the neglected area of class relations.

The purpose, therefore, is not to engage with the extent to which the model of Lean utilised is a 'pure' or coherent one. In their evaluation, hired consultants expressed reservations about the extent of HMRC's success in becoming Lean, albeit noting that it 'is moving in the right direction' (Radnor and Bucci 2007:7), but more pertinently, all implementations inevitably depart from Womack et al.'s original model (Danford 1998), and even subsequent work by Womack and Jones (2003) has a different emphasis. What is important here is the fact that the use of the term 'Lean' was synonymous in HMRC with changes sought by a management committed to a new regime that has been promoted as an exemplar for the rest of the Civil Service and beyond (Radnor and Boaden 2008). The term is retained as a shorthand for these changes.

The analysis of workplace changes is foregrounded by a brief examination of the classic writings on class and supervision, and the ways in which developments in the organisation and supervision of white-collar labour have impacted on the balance between the roles of coordination and control traditionally performed by FLMs. The HMRC case study describes contested changes that have increased control, intensified white-collar work and altered the balance of tasks within managers' work. Finally, the paper assesses the implications of changing roles for managers' union membership and class relations.

Class, management and supervision

Accounts frequently attribute to Marx a binary class structure under capitalism comprising a bourgeoisie and a proletariat based on ownership of the means of production and the need to sell labour power, respectively (Carter 1985). The resurgence of interest in Marx's work in the 1970s attempted to dismantle this orthodox view. While the growth of capitalist production eliminated many petty bourgeois, small-scale and independent producers, and thus supported the idea of proletarianisation and a polarised class structure, new studies directed attention to the simultaneous growth of a new middle class configured within large-scale capitalist enterprises. There were sharp disagreements about the exact basis of, and appropriate terminology for, this phenomenon, but there was agreement that the class structure was far from a simple dichotomy. Although the analysis of Poulantzas (1975) gained far more prominence, the work of Carchedi (1977) was arguably more consistent with Marx's theory (see Wright 1978 for an effective critique of Poulantzas). Carchedi pointed to the consequences for class relations as enterprises grew: ownership became dispersed through joint-stock companies, and owners' involvement in management and production ceased, replaced progressively by managerial hierarchies.

Management of capitalist enterprises had always possessed dual functions of control and supervision, on the one hand, and coordination and unification of the production process, on the other (Marx 1991: 510). While the former tasks arose specifically because of the antagonistic relations of production, due to the complexity of production, the latter would be necessary under any socialised system, while coordinating and unifying production managers were part of the collective worker. It followed that the supervision and control necessary for capitalism (in Carchedi's term the 'global function of capital') added nothing to the use value of products, and were not part of a labour process. Marx described the costs of these tasks as faux frais de production (incidental costs) (Marx 1976: 446). In contrast, coordinating and unifying tasks were part of the labour process paid from variable capital. Much of the discussion on white-collar and state labour has revolved around the significance of the categories productive and unproductive labour; the particular significance of Carchedi's contribution was his attempt to re-draw the contours of this debate by insisting that the tasks of supervision and control, however necessary under capitalism, were neither productive nor unproductive labour, but were non-labour. With this analysis, Carchedi maintained that it was possible to distinguish a new middle class that did not own...

To continue reading