Capitalists shooting their own feet – destroy trust and layer management

There was a wonderful article – The Origin of Job Structures in the Steel Industry – written by Katherine Stone and published in 1973. It was part of an overall research program that several economists and related disciplines were pursuing as part of the radical economics that was being developed at Harvard and Amherst in the early 1970s. One of the major strands of this research was to understand labour market segmentation and how labour market structure, job hierarchies, wage incentive systems and more are used by the employers (as agents of capital) to maintain control over the workforce and extract as much surplus value (and hopefully profits) as they can. It challenged much of the extant literature which had claimed that factory production and later organisational changes within firms were technology-driven and therefore more efficient. The Harvard radicals found that to be unsustainable given the evidence. They also eschewed the progressive idea that solving poverty was just about eliminating bad, low pay jobs, an idea which had currency in that era. They showed that the bad jobs were functional in terms of the class struggle within capitalism and gave the firms a buffer which allowed them to cope with fluctuating demand for their products. It also allowed them to maintain a relatively stable, high paid segment (primary labour market) which served management and was kept docile via hierarchical incentives etc. I was reminded of this literature when I read a recent paper from Dutch-based researchers on the way firms have evolved in the neo-liberal era of precarious work. Much is made of the supposed efficiency gains of a more flexible labour market. How it spurs innovation and productivity through increased competition and allows firms to be more nimble. The entire ‘structural reforms’ agenda of the IMF, the OECD, the European Commission and many national governments is predicated on these myths. The Dutch research shows the irony of these manic neo-liberals.

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