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Labour Process Theory and Labour Geography

Labour process theory

Braverman emphasised that the labour process depicts the tendency for industrial societies to disempower and deskill workers through a variety of management strategies (Braverman H., 1998). Braverman (1998) argues that the labour process is the process that begins with the “contract or agreement governing the sale of labour power by the worker and its purchase by the employer” (p. 36). While the use of the word ‘contract’ may signify some voluntary action by the worker, Braverman (1998) suggests that the worker has no choice but to enter into this contract because social conditions leave him with no other alternative. Thus, the worker is part of a process that is aimed to expand capital (Braverman, 1998). This argument came under significant criticism such as by Littler and Salaman (1982) who state that defects in this argument result from neglecting crucial Marxian categories as well as due to ambiguities in Marxian theory itself. It is also argued that Braverman’s sociology of work also ignores the growing importance of employee flexibility represented by choice, discretion, and autonomy for workers in the labour process (Carey, 2007). Therefore, the concept of worker agency needs to be incorporated in this discussion.

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Labour Process Theory (LPT) was initially a response to a controversial thesis by Braverman (1974) that emphasised labour deskilling. Inspired by Marxist theory, LPT developed primarily through use of case studies to critique Braverman’s deskilling thesis, demonstrating how workplace control, deskilling and worker ‘resistance’ unfolds in practice at the point of production (Hastings, 2016). Over time, Labour Process theory has been able to depict how workers interact, and even challenge structures of control within the workplace (and so wider local labour markets) and the spaces in which work takes place (Bridi, 2013; Sportel, 2013). This is relevant to how workers are controlled within the workplace for the extraction of surplus value through their work, which posits the need for workers’ agency for that they can negotiate the terms of this extraction. Furthermore, workers may also use the workplace as a site for the furtherance of aspirations, such as those involved in greening and environmental outcomes so that contestations against structures of control is not the only way in which workers use their agency.

Labour process theory’s particular significance is that it helps to explain the structural constraints that workers face in the process of labour. The labour process theory is also useful in outlining the methods that can be used by those involved in the labour process for negotiating these structures; in particular, the emphasis is on agency of workers to negotiate the structural constraints and resistance. By agency I refer to the ability of workers to think and act and challenge the environment around them in desired ways. This could be of significance for understanding how workers negotiate their work and try to pursue particular agendas through active forms of resistance and subtle forms of coping (Jermier, Knights and Nord 1994).

In order to understand labour process theory, it would be useful to first briefly refer to Marxist labour theory as this is the background of the labour process theory. Karl Marx wrote that the labour process refers to the process that materialises labour and objectifies it in use values (Marx, 1976). Marx also explained the process of labour in terms of the relationship between the person who performs the labour and the natural world which contains the elements that are altered in a purposive manner in the labour process. Labour can therefore be described as a purposive productive activity that transforms some object(s) with the instruments that facilitate labour (Marx, 1976). Marx explained labour as a process in which man and nature were participants with the former controlling the later; importantly, Marx argued that in the process of acting on the external world and changing it, man also changes his own nature (Marx, 1976). Thus, the labour process is transformative in two senses according to Karl Marx: first, in the sense of man transforming elements of nature through his actions; and second, man transforming himself in the process.

An interesting and important aspect of the LPT is that it uses case study to understand and explain the way in which the providers of labour interact with the providers of capital (Thompson & Smith, 2000). In greening context, LPT has been used to explain the greening in the steel industry, which demonstrates how case study approach of the LPT can explain the ways in which labour can interact with the capital providers (Evans & Stroud, 2016). This approach is based on the Marxist premise that the workplace is an important empirical object in itself wherein the researcher can explore not just the conflicts between capital and labour within the context of the said workplace, but also the conflicts within the wider political economy (Thompson & Smith, 2000). Political economy refers to the relationships between individuals, society, markets and state and relates to both political and economic factors that determine these relationships as political economy is the confluence between politics and economy (Caporaso and Levine 1992). Thompson and Smith (2000) also identify core elements of Labour Process theory, which includes the necessity for a control imperative in the labour process, in order for capital to secure profitable production and to translate labour power into actual labour and a surplus.

Another important aspect of the labour process is the power that the labour itself may have due to their tacit skill and informal knowledge, without which capital cannot be generated; this was the point made by Manwaring and Wood (1984) who argued that labour has a knack or skill of the work which is central to the success of the capital. It is due to this skill and knack that the power of the workers is protected (Manwaring & Wood, 1984). There are certain technical aspects of the work, which are part of the labour process and also a part of the social process which are part of the organisation of the workplace (Manwaring & Wood 1984). In the context of the power relations of the workers and the capitalists, these technical aspects can serve as powers of the labour. In this regard, the skills that workers have can also be used to pursue greening agenda. Evans and Stroud (2016) have explored how greening has been used as an aspiration by the employer to assess employee skills for greening, but this does not explore the use of labour process by the employees for attaining greening aspirations. According to Evans and Stroud (2016), employers and firms aspire to create green workspaces. However, there is little research on the labour process perspective for understanding how greening can be attained at workplaces. Nevertheless, LPT can be used to explore how aspirations of the workers with regard to greening may translate into specific ways in which workers may employ their skills or use negotiations to bring such aspirations to bear upon the organisations to change processes to allow for greening. As pointed out by Thompson (1983), workers bring their aspirations to work and are not merely passive factors that are to be adjusted.

In case studies, Labour Process Theory researchers have depicted how these power relations actually work. For instance, Sportel (2013) demonstrate how unorganised labour regulated itself socially and informally and how labour markets are socially and spatially structured. Sportel (2013) argues that it is important to apply a structure–agency approach for understanding labour dynamics. In this work, the structure-agency approach applied by Sportel (2013) is an example of combination of insights drawn from the social structures of accumulation framework, and theory of agency. The structure-agency approach can be explained as the combination of the structure that is involved in a given case study (Sportel case study involved an unorganised sector), and the ways in which the workers negotiate through their own agency. The insights that the researcher can draw from the case study based on this approach can help the researcher to understand how structure and agency can interact in a given case study. In the context of the current research, this perspective may become relevant considering that there are different kinds of labour organisations within universities and universities in general do not have organised labour because professors associated with the universities may not necessarily be organised in terms of labour. In that context, a structure and agency approach may explain the negotiation process related to greening within the universities.

Labour geography

Labour geography is also derived from the Marxist theory, in that it is emphasising on the agency of workers for negotiating the labour constraints and the capitalist landscape within which the labour process is carried out. Labour process theory has the major area of concern related to activities within the process of selling labour and doing work. Labour Geography theory has a focus that emphasises on the spatial aspects of worker agency. An example of such spatial aspect can be seen in the use of different scales of organising like strikes (the spatial aspect here relating to local, national and even scaling upto global levels). An important and useful description of Labour Geography theory is provided by Hastings (2016) who writes that the theory draws on the critical Marxist tradition, and operates on the premise that “conflict and compromise are necessary features of the geographies of capitalism” (p. 311). Hastings (2016) writes that the core belief of labour geography is that “workers can/do combat the provocations of capital through spatial agency”, which “marks the project with a clear and axiomatic moral objective” (p. 311). Hastings (2016) therefore makes a point about the moral basis of the Labour Geography theory.

Labour Geography theory grew from the work done by Herod (1997), wherein he emphasised on the need to consider how economic space is actively produced through the role played by workers as negotiators with collective power that they use for enhancing their working lives. Defining labour geography as “an effort to see the making of the economic geography of capitalism through the eyes of labour”, Herod (1997: 3) explained the way in which labour geography defines the way in which labour can help to understand economic geography in a way that is different from traditional way. It may be mentioned here that the neoclassical approach has been more focussed on how forms see labour as factors in production. The neoclassical approach sees the labour market as a competitive market in which the level of employment and the unit price of labour is comparable to the consumer good so that companies are suppliers of goods and demanders of the labour (Blackburn & Mann, 1979). For instance, neoclassical approach may explain why labour chooses to migrate to the country where better wages are offered (Bickerton, 2019); however, it does not explain how workers can also be negotiators. On the other hand, Labour Geography theory emphasises on the way in which economic space is actively produced through the role played by workers as negotiators with collective power (Herod, 1997).

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Herod (1997) argued that mapping geographies of labour from a capital-centric perspective was inappropriate and there was a need to explore new labour geographies that were coming up due to the role played by workers as being able to use new opportunities to use space and scale to their advantage. Herod’s work is important for being able to articulate the concept of analytic primacy of workers as active agents who can shape the economic space and the geographies of capitalism (Hastings, 2016).

The use of space and scale is central to understanding Labour Geography. This was also explained by Herod (2001) as follows:

“The production of space in particular ways is not only important for capital’s ability to survive by enabling accumulation and the reproduction of capitalism itself, but it is also crucial for workers’ abilities to survive and reproduce themselves. Just as capital does not exist in an aspatial world, neither does labor. The process of labor’s self-reproduction (both biological and social) … must take place in particular geographical locations. Given this fact, it becomes clear that workers are likely to want to shape the economic landscape in ways that facilitate this self-reproduction” (p. 33).

The central premise of this theory is that workers have opportunities to organise local actions and activities and scale these up to the national and even international level for the purpose of contesting existing issues in the workplace or the wider labour market for deriving measures and policies that can benefit themselves (Hastings, 2016). An example can be seen in Herod (2001) where he writes about the conflict between General Motors and the United Auto Workers in 1998 which saw workers being able to shut down the factories in Flint, Michigan for two months and crippling the ability of General Motors to produce for 2 months and affecting 146 factories country wide. The widespread effect of the halt of work in so many factories was because of the reliance on Just in Time production methods, which led to the scaling up of the conflict and effect for General Motors corporate structure. Ultimately, the company had to give in to the demands of the United Auto Workers for bettering the local working conditions in Flint factories (Herod, Labour Geographies: Workers and the Landscapes of Capitalism, 2001). This can also be linked back to the Labour Process theory, particularly what Manwaring and Wood (1984) argued about labour skill that can also lead to the power of the workers being protected as Flint workers were able to stall the work in the factories because of their technical skill which was not easily replaced in a short period of time.

Katz’s approach where she wrote on the 3 R’s of the workers agency: resilience’, ‘reworking’ forms of coping, ‘resistance’ is also significant for conceptualising worker agency although it is not linked to labour geography in particular (Katz, 2004). Labour Geography researchers however have drawn on the 3 R’s for understanding worker agency. Katz (2004) has argued that resistance is a social practice used by workers with a consciousness to challenge the employers’ oppressive powers as well as oppressive social hierarchies and the state. Reworking attempts to create a new balance of power relations and a redistribution of wealth that is more favourable for the oppressed or workers’ interests (Katz, 2004). Resilience is form of agency which is deployed as a tactic of adjustment to condition (Katz, 2004). A work that is grounded in Labour Geography theory and can be used to demonstrate the use of the Katz approach is that by Lier (2007) who reviews the literature on the theory and argues that there is a need for a fresh approach understanding the world of work and to the close relationships between workers, firms, the state and the wider community. Lier (2007) also writes about how literature demonstrates that the workers are able to scale up protest and conflict to a point where their agency can be powerful to counter the power of the capital. Although, the current study is not related to the use of agency by workers against a particular structure, Katz theory can still be useful in the context of there being resilience against established practices that are harmful to the environment. Castree (2007) writes that it would be difficult to summarise Labour Geography field in a generalised way now because it has become large and diverse with different characteristics or signature elements including but not limited to geography of labour.

References:

Bickerton, C. J., 2019 . The limits of differentiation: capitalist diversity and labour mobility as drivers of Brexit. Comparative European Politics , 17( 2 ), pp. 231-245.

Blackburn, R. M. & Mann, M., 1979. The Working Class and the Labour Market. In: The Working Class in the Labour Market. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1-34.

Braverman, H. (1974). Labour and monopoly capital. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Braverman, H. (1998). Labor and monopoly capital: The degradation of work in the twentieth century. New York: NYU Press.

Bridi, R. M. (2013). Labour control in the tobacco agro-spa ces: migrant agricultural workers in southwestern Ontario. Antipode, 45(5), 1070–1089.

Carey, M. (2007). White-collar proletariat? Braverman, the deskilling/upskilling of social work and the paradoxical life of the agency care manager. Journal of Social Work, 7(1), 93-114.

Castree, N. (2007). Labour geography: A work in progress. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 31(4), 853-862.

Evans, C. & Stroud, D., 2016. Greening steel work: Varieties of Capitalism and the ‘greening’of skills. Journal of Education and Work, 29(3), pp. 263-283.

Hastings, T. (2016). Moral matters: De-romanticising worker agency and charting future directions for labour geography. Geography Compass, 10(7), 307–318.

Herod, A. (1997). From a geography of labor to a labor geography: Labor’s spatial fix and the geography of capitalism. Antipode, 29(1), 1–31.

Herod, A. (2001). Labour Geographies: Workers and the Landscapes of Capitalism. New York: Guildford Press.

Katz, C. (2004). Growing up global: economic restructuring and children’s everyday lives. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press .

Lier, D. C. (2007). Places of Work, Scales of Organising: A Review of Labour Geography. Geography Compass, 1 (4), 814-833.

Littler, C. R., & Salaman, G. (1982). Bravermania and Beyond: Recent Theories of the Labour Process. Sociology, 16(2), 251-269.

Manwaring, T., & Wood, S. (1984). The ghost in the machine: Tacit skills in the labour process. Socialist Review, 14(2), 55-83.

Braverman, H. (1974). Labour and monopoly capital. New York : Monthly Review Press.

Braverman, H. (1998). Labor and monopoly capital: The degradation of work in the twentieth century. New York: NYU Press.

Bridi, R. M. (2013). Labour control in the tobacco agro-spaces: migrant agricultural workers in southwestern Ontario. Antipode, 45(5), 1070–1089.

Carey, M. (2007). White-collar proletariat? Braverman, the deskilling/upskilling of social work and the paradoxical life of the agency care manager. Journal of Social Work, 7(1), 93-114.

Castree, N. (2007). Labour geography: A work in progress. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 31(4), 853-862.

Hastings, T. (2016 ). Moral matters: De-romanticising worker agency and charting future directions for labour geography. Geography Compass, 10(7), 307–318.

Herod, A. (1997). From a geography of labor to a labor geography: Labor’s spatial fix and the geography of capitalism. Antipode , 29(1), 1–31.

Herod, A. (2001). Labour Geographies: Workers and the Landscapes of Capitalism. New York: Guildford Press.

Katz, C. (2004). Growing up global: economic restructuring and children’s everyday lives. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press .

Lier, D. C. (2007). Places of Work, Scales of Organising: A Review of Labour Geography. Geography Compass, 1 (4), 814-833.

Littler, C. R., & Salaman, G. (1982). Bravermania and Beyond: Recent Theories of the Labour Process. Sociology, 16(2), 251-269.

Manwaring, T., & Wood, S. (1984). The ghost in the machine: Tacit skills in the labour process. Socialist Review, 14(2), 55-83.

Marx, K. (1976 ). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy volume one. London: Penguin Books.

Sportel, T. (2013). Agency within a socially regulated labour market: A study of ‘unorganised’agricultural labour in Kerala. Geoforum, 47 , 42-52.

Thompson, P., 1983. The nature of work: An introduction to debates on the labour process. s.l.:Macmillan International Higher Education.

Thompson, P., & Smith, C. (2000). Follow the Redbrick Road: Reflections on Pathways in and out of the Labour Process Debate. Int. Studies of Mgt. & Org., 30 (4), 40–67.


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