The utopian fantasy of post-fordism

A Review of John Mathews’ Tools of Change, Pluto Press, Sydney, 1988.

At times of a low ebb of class struggle, there have always been prophets who have acclaimed the “end of class”. The present downturn is no exception, with some of the insights developed by the Marxist academics in the social sciences in the 1970s being gradually undermined by the emergence of a swag of “new theories” which seek to bury the whole tradition of a class perspective on the world. It is into this context that we have to set the work of John Mathews.

John Mathews, lecturer in industrial relations at the University of NSW, spent several years as advisor to the ACTU and in the middle and late 1980s as consultant to the Victorian government. His ideas therefore have a certain prominence at political and academic levels. In particular, they are important in that his works represent the popularisation in Australia of the works of several schools of thought from overseas, chief amongst these being the French Regulation School of Boyer, Lipietz and Aglietta,[2] and the American theorists of “post-Fordism”, or “flexible specialisation” (the terms tend to be used interchangeably).[3] These schools of thought are widely used and discussed in university social science departments. In Australia, Mathews uses these theories in order to provide a rounded intellectual justification for the current program of the ACTU and the union officials, as epitomised by Australia Reconstructed. It is therefore important for socialists to be able to tackle his work as part of the wider intellectual debate concerning Marxism and the value of a class analysis.

What does Mathews say?

Mathews’ works[4] are incredibly wide ranging and therefore this review can only deal with his ideas at the most basic level. They may be summarised as follows:

1. The history of the twentieth century can be written in terms of the rise and fall of a particular “mode of production”, that of Fordism. All social and political phenomena, from the welfare state, Keynesian demand management programs, the nature of trade unionism, the relative position of women in the workforce, and the economic crisis of the 1970s, can be understood in terms of the relative health of Fordism.

2. Fordism is a particular “mode of production” characterised by long production runs of identical products, the fragmentation of jobs and the incorporation of knowledge and control in a centralised management hierarchy (known as Taylorism or scientific management). While it was economically superior to previous so-called modes of production (the craft mode, for example) for the bulk of this century, recent developments have made it increasingly obsolete.

3. In particular, the “techno-economic logic” of recent developments has favoured the emergence of a new “mode of production”, that of “post-Fordism”. This involves flexible production driven by sophisticated and changing consumer tastes which emphasise quality and uniqueness in place of low cost and standardisation. The best examples of this are Benetton clothes, boutique beers and the Tie Rack chain of stores.

4. The changes that have occurred, from a production-driven to a product market-driven system, have implications for the treatment of labour inside the factories. Whereas Fordism relied on de-skilled workers, with little autonomy for independent initiative and coercive management supervision, the economic imperative of the new system is for labour-management co-operation, the reskilling of the workforce and the “humanisation of work”.

5. Because, however, the latter is not determined from the start, the historic task for trade unions in the 1990s will be to ensure that management choose the post-Fordist option. The political agenda of Australia Reconstructed, Future Strategies for the Trade Union Movement, Can Unions Survive? and award restructuring is the correct approach, representing as it does a sustained intervention by the Australian union movement in the future shaping of society and the economy.

6. The alternative strategy, favoured by the New Right employers and a minority within the trade unions, is for a return to free collective bargaining. This would be a disastrous outcome. For Australian industry, it would lead to the intensification of Fordist cost-cutting and de-skilling (the so-called “neo-Fordist” option). This is no long term solution. Rather, it would make those companies that adopt such a strategy increasingly uncompetitive. For Australian workers, it would simply polarise the labour movement and widen inequality. The strong unions would prosper (for a while, at least), whereas the weakly organised unions and the unorganised and unskilled workers would get crushed in the stampede. Those on the left who propose breaking from the Accord simply play into the hands of the New Right.[5]

A critique: the importance of a class analysis

Mathews’ work represents the rightward shift of social democracy in crisis. Tools of Change is both idealist, in that he abstracts competitive accumulation from the driving force of capitalism, and therefore believes that capitalists can be won over to his strategy on the basis of its inherent “rationality”, and mechanical determinist, in that his technology-market-driven schema ignores choice and struggle by the major social classes. His work parades in the clothing of Marxism at times, but in reality it represents a right wing offensive against Marxism. In this, his work represents a “micro version” of the ideas of market socialism, with its equally utopian goals of making the present system meet human need. And it’s not that his ideas are those of the mistaken yet sincere social scientist who is grappling to understand the world. Rather, they are part of the right wing ideological offensive of the ACTU and the ALP government. In this, they are not merely internally inconsistent and empirically false, but right wing and anti-working class.

In order to try to persuade the reader of his ideas, Mathews first has to remove the debate from the wider surroundings of class society. In this way, he can pretend that while there may indeed be a struggle at the point of production over control and skill levels, this is not to be seen as part of a wider system in which management behaves in particular ways that are driven by considerations that are an inherent part of a crisis-prone system. This placing of workplace-based relations in a vacuum, isolated from wider society, is not just an oversight on Mathews’ part. It is not as if he is unaware of Marxist concepts.[6] It is a deliberate attempt to undermine a class perspective on the question. Time and again he stresses the common interests that both unions and employers have in a humanised workplace, enriched jobs, the spreading of skills to semi- and un-skilled workers.

The dangers for the union movement in adopting a “post-Fordist” strategy are more than just questions of fine detail about the implications of robot systems for the level of skilled work. The publication of Matthews’ works is part of a wider debate which underpins the organisational and ideological disarming of the working class which can help lay the basis for an employer offensive, the very things he reckons that his strategy can forestall.

One example of his intellectual dishonesty is his use of Marxist terminology in a way that is quite counter to its true meaning, but which nonetheless might give the reader the impression that the author is working from a Marxist world view. A case in point is Mathews’ use of the term “mode of production”, which he deliberately strips of its political content. What Marxists mean by the term is the combined state of the forces of production at any particular historical juncture with the social relations of production, the relations between the exploiters and exploited. And so reference to the capitalist mode of production tells us of the particular way in which the surplus is extracted by a ruling class from an exploited class, through relations of wage labour.

What Mathews means is simply the type of tools of production, the length of production runs and so on. In avoiding the social and political features associated with the rise of the factory system, he is therefore able to claim that the ownership of the factory and the wider social relations have very little bearing on decisions taken at the workplace. Marxists start from a different perspective, that of the totality of social relations, of which relations at the workplace are just one set.

The socialist starting point for any assessment of new technology and industrial change is the basic framework of competitive capital accumulation, the underlying dynamic of production. It is this which explains why any production process or strategy will be undertaken, i.e. its ability (or its perceived ability) to improve the profitability and competitive position of the capitalist who undertakes it. With this in mind, we can understand both the dominance of mass production in particular industries, as well as the fact that whole areas of production, even in the heyday of “Fordism”, remained confined to smaller production runs.

By removing the central role of capital accumulation and the tendency for the system to go into crisis, the “post-Fordist” world view argues that the crisis that took root in the 1970s was simply a crisis of mass production, with the breakdown of the relationship between production and consumption. But such institutional or underconsumptionist theories of crisis ignore the real root of the crisis, the falling rate of profit.[7]

Because Mathews deliberately disguises the underlying dynamic of capitalism, this allows him to attempt to convince the reader that his schemes of work humanisation and the adoption of post-Fordist methods will be able to solve the crisis of Western manufacturing for the employers in ways which will also strengthen the position of organised labour. But nowhere is it explained why this should be the case. First of all, why should such methods be more efficient? Very little evidence is given, except by reference to occasional examples, whose main effect has been to lengthen the unemployment queues.[8] And secondly, even if output should increase, how does this solve the crisis of mass production? How does it help restore profit rates, soak up “overproduction” of basic manufacturing goods such as cars and steel, or help to stabilise the yawning foreign debts being run up by the American ruling class (or the Australian, for that matter). The problem is that the most humanised workplace in the world is not going to solve the fundamental problems of Australian capital, it will make no difference to the need for an anarchic race to accumulate capital and the implications that this has for the underlying rate of profit.

His idealism merges with his underlying technological determinism when it comes to his discussion of the implementation of new technology and work methods. As noted above, Mathews argues that changes to product markets have given rise to particular production methods which are in turn associated with work humanisation. However, as Marxists, we have to be clear that this schema is completely false. We can illustrate the utopianism of his analysis by reference to some of his concrete arguments.

First of all, is it true that there has been a decline of mass markets, a saturation of consumption of basic household goods? Mathews argues that Western “consumers” have reached the limits of standard household wares and so are shifting their budgets to fancy and specialised goods. But even the most superficial consideration of the question, by walking into your local supermarket, would undermine this argument. Who runs the food chains? Increasingly, food purchases are done at fast food chains, run by no more than half a dozen companies. The supermarkets are dominated by the Coles Myer Group and Adelaide Steamship. Each of these combines is able to reap massive cost savings by vast production of standardised goods. Think of beer. It’s true that the yuppies have turned to boutique beers, but at the same time all those companies that used to produce independently, such as Tooth’s and Resch’s, have now been taken over by CUB and Bond Brewing, which together dominate beer production by brewing literally millions of litres of identical beers every year, the quality of which is virtually the same from Hobart to Darwin. No move to product variety here. To think otherwise is to be living in the comfortable middle class ghettos of South Yarra and Paddington where high spending power may buy entrance to the boutiques, whose doors are effectively locked to the majority of ordinary Australians.

The international car industry provides perhaps the clearest refutation of the idea that differentiation is now the key. Around the world, the tendency is for a greater number of style variations, but a smaller number of models.[9] In Australia, this has been the explicit intention of the Button Industry Plan. Think of the Mazda 323 and the Ford Laser, the Holden Astra and the Nissan Pulsar, identical cars with different badges, the ultimate logic of modern capitalism’s tendency to standardise and a stunning refutation of the arguments of the “market socialists” that the market gives us real choice.

Even the new products that have been developed in the last decade have all very quickly come to be standardised and mass produced. Stories of backyard computer companies that come up with some major new model and sweep the world are, by and large, bitter myths in the eyes of many who have tried it and been frozen out of distribution networks and research funds by the giant IBM. Indeed, the more modern the item in question, the more likely it is that its production is dominated by only a very few companies the world over. Think of VCRs, for example. Whereas there were literally dozens of car companies before the Second World War, there have only ever been at most half a dozen producers of VCRs.

In those areas where there was once scope for a certain emphasis on quality, prestige and “market niche”, mass production is being pressed into action here as well. Production runs of the so-called high quality niche cars, such as Jaguar and BMW , are increasing.[10] In the capital goods industry, there has been a shift from customised towards mass production of machinery.[11] Rather than product diversification, much of the motivation for the introduction of new technology has been an attempt to cut costs, improve quality and get the most out of existing expensive facilities.[12]

Finally, a major doubt is thrown on the idea of the decline of mass production as soon as we shift our focus from the core Western economies to the world economy. At the very point where the “crisis of Fordism” is supposed to grip – the 1970s – we see mass production expanding its reach through the development of the Newly Industrialising Countries in East Asia and Latin America. To summarise, mass production, large companies and all that we have traditionally associated with monopoly capitalism are still firmly in place.

The second arm of Mathews’ argument is that the decline of the era of mass production and the domination of Western manufacturing by a few companies is associated with new production methods raising the skill level of the workforce. Claims that a particular organisation of production would lead to a “humanisation of work” are by no means new. When Braverman brought the question to prominence in the mid-1970s, he clashed directly with the view that prevailed both academically and popularly, which was that the move to white collar work and the introduction of robots in the factories and the development of mass prosperity during the post-war boom had eliminated the drudgery of work and the sharpness of class antagonisms. A class analysis may have been appropriate for the nineteenth century and the grimy mills of the north of England but had no place in the quiet automatic chemical refineries of the 1950s and 60s.

Braverman and the “labour process” theorists who followed him intellectually destroyed the claims of “post-industrial” or “post-class” theorists by showing the immiseration and proletarianisation of white collar work, the fact that new technology was being used to intensify Taylorism and that class antagonisms were building up in explosive proportions. The arguments of Mathews and the “post-Fordists” represent an intellectual counter-revolution and are in fact nothing more than Cold War American industrial sociology updated for the 1990s.

Changes in the structure of the workforce, from blue to white collar, or from manufacturing to services, have no necessary connection with a rise or fall in the level of skill – a fact which is borne out by both relative wage levels and the nature of the work itself.[13] Plenty of white collar work in the service sector such as, for example, credit card processing, is low paid, repetitive and dead-end.

A distinction also needs to be made between multi-skilling in any real sense, and the mere combination of a number of unskilled tasks. Even where technology does reduce the relative importance of unskilled workers, this does not necessarily require increased use of multi-skilled tradespeople. The arguments that Braverman made in 1974 about the degradation of work still provide a useful framework for looking at the question today. What is meant by a rise in the “average” skill? A higher average may conceal increased polarization. As Braverman puts it, “the mass of workers gain nothing from the fact that the decline in their command over the labour process is more than compensated for by the increased command on the part of managers and engineers”.[14] There is no technological inevitability in de-skilling, and technological change may lead to new skills or responsibility for some workers, while the general tendency remains towards de-skilling.[15]

Case studies provide plenty of evidence of the degradation of work despite, or because of, the introduction of computerised technology.[16] Wilkinson’s study of the Australian car industry has shown that management have in many cases farmed out the more skilled maintenance work to outside contractors, leading to a reduction in the number, and dilution in the skill level, of existing tradespeople.[17] Government studies in Britain show that technical change appeared to have reduced the number and skill level of tasks required by process operatives in most manufacturing companies. Pollert reports that: “The tendency was to reduce the number of operatives and/or spread them more thinly across the plant, adding a number of deskilled tasks to their job”.[18]

In the service sector, a case study of secretarial workers in Brisbane shows that the majority of such jobs surveyed are being deskilled.[19] Operators have little control over their work and nor do they have the opportunity to gain knowledge of the wider production process. The use of electronic equipment in typing pools may involve the loss of shorthand skills, and a range of other skills (such as tabulation) are also rendered technologically obsolete. In this environment clerical jobs have also been routinised to simply selecting clauses or paragraphs to make up a letter.[20]

It may well be possible for management to combine elements of both scientific management and “employee participation”, as in the Japanese combination of quality circles and Taylorist job design. However, this has not meant a paradise for workers, rather greater pressures to speed-up and the incorporation of the union.[21] Once the economic crisis worsens and competition is intensified, all the sophisticated “human resources management” consultants will be thrown out and management will resume their traditional “solutions” of wage cuts, sackings and speed-ups.[22] The history of capitalism provides plenty of examples of such turnarounds, as the variety of strategies adopted by Henry Ford in the 1920s showed so well. The recession of 1920-21 saw Ford ditch all the strategies of “welfare capitalism” for which he had become famous, in favour of more ruthless forms of exploitation.[23]

The basic factor that determines which philosophies will be adopted is the judgement by management as to which will produce the greatest efficiency, both in terms of productive efficiency and their control over the workforce.[24] The ultimate aim of any capitalist method of production is capital accumulation through the extraction of surplus value. The virtue of Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital, whatever its faults, was that it tore away the veil of neutrality that had hitherto clothed “scientific” management. It revealed the class interests that were behind the propagation of Taylorism.

The choice of management strategies

The task of management always involves a compromise between control over the workforce and the need to obtain their motivation and initiative. It is this which leads to shifting fashions in labour management. New management strategies differ not in their goals, but in the way they are to be achieved. The variety of strategies open to management, from “work humanisation” and scientific management to “Human Relations”, offers different approaches to the same problem, in this case attempts by management to use the knowledge of workers in order to maximise the extraction of surplus value.

The problem with the analyses suggested by Mathews and other promoters of work humanisation schemes is that they ignore the fact that alienation is not just a product of fragmented work tasks or the application of scientific management, but is rooted in the very nature of capitalism by the removal from the direct producers of any ownership or control over the means of production. This means that, even if steps such as electing one’s own supervisors were to be implemented, this would not remove alienation, since the law of value would still bear down on workers. This is why Marxists are anxious to define alienation accurately: it’s not just a feeling of being “hard done by”, but is a material fact, the reality of class relationships, which Mathews’ schemes do not change by one iota.

Capitalism is never threatened by schemes of “work humanisation”. Indeed, if workers and unions think that it is the way forward, their ability to fight management and to defend their conditions is actually worsened. What it meant in its previous incarnation was the explicit union-busting ventures of the American capitalists in the 1920s, under the name of the American Plan. The American Plan was part of a grand strategy to turn back the tide of trade unionism and left wing ideas that had swept forward after the First World War. On the surface, it involved “being nice to the workers”, in the sense of providing higher pay, better welfare conditions and so on. Underneath lay the real agenda of sacking militants and setting the Pinkerton detectives and company goons on active unionists.

In order to make such schemes seem attractive to workers, Mathews suggests that they may offer greater task variety, mutual support, opportunities for learning, etc. Nowhere does he speak of shorter hours, better wages and real workers’ control for, after all, that would destroy the cooperation that he wants to build with “progressive capitalists”. In looking at management strategy therefore, it is necessary to separate the apparent from the real; to see the underlying class interests of management, rather than the public relations veneer.

Implications for the labour movement

Mathews sees his work as pointing to a “third way”, an alternative to the grey bureaucratic and monolithic “socialist” strategy of state control and the anarchic capitalist model (this is most clear in his Age of Democracy). This is supposedly a radical political project, wresting power into the hands of ordinary people. He even argues that his program embodies values and goals “which have been bequeathed by generations of socialists”.[25]

However, it is soon clear just how radical his political strategy is to be and exactly to which socialists he feels indebted. Despite his clarion call for radical change, the essence of his politics is to call for a “strategic accommodation” with Australian capitalism. The task is for a socially, politically and economically sophisticated labour movement to “forge an alliance with progressive sections of the employers and professional middle classes”. In Age of Democracy, he rounds this out and argues for socialist thought to be fused with eighteenth century liberalism, as a way of achieving the happy mix of collective security and individual liberty.

This class collaborationist strategy, which Mathews wants us to believe is the revolutionary new product of the finest brains of the 1980s, permeates all his works. In Tools of Change, this approach is applied to union and worker demands. Underlying this strategy is one central idea – that there is a common interest between unions and employers in developing a “flexible and efficient industrial system”.[26] But in practice this collaboration does not take place between equals. While it is a truism that employers need workers to make profits and workers need “their companies” to stay afloat to guarantee their jobs, at the end of the day, capital is mobile, and is backed by a powerful state machine and the prevailing force of conventional ideas. All of these put capital in a far more powerful position, a position that companies will be only too ready to exploit if workers lay down their defences in the mistaken belief in “joint interests”.[27]

More importantly, the common interest that is supposed to exist is a fantasy. The fact that managements introduce work restructuring for their own economic objectives may not necessarily rule out some improvements for the workforce.[28] But this has to be seen as an entirely contingent effect. An Australian example that illustrates this point is the setting up of occupational health and safety committees as an outcome of the two-tier wage system. According to two academics, they were seen as “a method of further lowering accident rates and improving safety, thus considerably lowering lost time and related expenses through improved efficiency”.[29] But what happens if improved safety procedures require capital outlay, or are time-consuming and diminish productivity? Which comes first – workers’ safety or profitability? The supposedly common interests dissolve in the face of this conflict.

Defence of working class interests requires an approach based on class struggle, not class collaboration. Management realise this only too well: once their profitability is threatened, consultation becomes merely window dressing on the continued exercise of their prerogative. Arrangements for consultation and advance warning of restructuring at Ericsson’s in Sweden did not stop 4,500 lay-offs. It did, however, stop the unions from fighting their management “partner”.[30] Similarly, the much vaunted union intervention in the reorganisation of the Victorian railway workshops[31] has not stopped the State’s Labor government from planning to shed 3,600 jobs over the next three years.

The advocates of a “post-Fordist” strategy argue that it will underwrite and reinforce the strength and integrity of the trade union movement itself.[32] What has it meant in practice? Given that these ideas form much of the theoretical underpinning of award restructuring, it is worth looking at the strategy in operation and comparing it with the claims put forward on its behalf. The work of Frenkel and Shaw, and Rimmer and Zappala[33] on the two-tier wage system provide useful evidence of the one-sided nature of gains and concessions made by the major parties. According to Frenkel and Shaw, their case studies indicate “a slow process of encroaching management control over employee behaviour”.[34] There were widespread “attempts by management to ensure that paid time is fully utilised worktime” – hence changes in teatime, washing-up time and so on. Changes in work organisation were effected “in order to make more efficient use of machinery and equipment. Often such changes require employees to undertake more work”.[35]

Assessing the twelve major second tier agreements outlined by Rimmer and Zappala, the common features that recur are the expansion of multi-skilling, greater managerial discretion over the use of labour, the removal of some element of worker control over taking breaks, be they lunch breaks, rostered days off or annual holidays, the reduction of penalty rates for unsocial hours, the rise in the proportion of casual and part-time to full-time permanent workers, and the introduction of grievance procedures and dispute-settling procedures that make it harder for workplace union organisation to retaliate quickly in response to unilateral managerial actions.

Changes which Rimmer and Zappala cite approvingly, such as second tier agreements producing “genuine attitudinal change in the form of union and employee commitment to enterprise efficiency and competitiveness”,[36] underlie a fundamental weakening of the unions’ ability to perform their most basic role – defence of their members’ living standards. The weakening of workplace union organisation in the aftermath of “cooperative industrial restructuring” at the Williamstown Dockyards in Melbourne undermines some of the other claims made for such union “intervention” as a way of strengthening the union movement. The decline in union density from 49 percent to 42 percent over the life of the Accord must also raise doubts about the merits of this strategy.[37]

The final problem arises from the earlier discussion of management strategy. The Accord is at present the predominant overall strategy of the employers (regardless of its origins as a product of the left union officials). Consensus is preferred to confrontation. Considerable evidence exists of the unpopularity of those maverick sections of the employers who have adopted a more confrontationist approach. The draconian measures carried through by the federal government in the domestic airlines dispute of late 1989-early 1990 are simply an example of the extremes to which the government will go to save the present strategy. However, there is no reason for management to stick to anyone strategy. The onset of a severe recession, or a more precipitate decline in union membership, could well see a shift to a more confrontationist approach. Mathews’ claim that “social contract arrangements are becoming a permanent feature of advanced industrial societies”[38] is a wishful (for him) fantasy.

Even where they do exist, such arrangements are unable to deliver what they promise. The problem here is the nationalist framework within which they are situated. One of the central tenets of class collaboration nationalism, ignores the international dimension of competition which no amount of restructuring can eliminate. The demise of the British car industry is one case in point.[39] Closer to home, we need look no further than Hexham Engineering, one of the pioneers of award restructuring. Despite having its own enterprise agreement based on award restructuring ratified by the Commission in March 1988, Hexham closed its doors in October 1989, sacking what remained of its workers. No amount of restructuring could compensate for the depressed state of the world coal industry, which saw a 40 percent drop in business for the heavy engineering equipment producer.[40]

Our alternative perspective as socialists has to be that building on and encouraging that working class collective activity which does still exist – strikes and work bans, whether about wages or conditions – rather than trying to suppress them in the interests of consensus and top-level negotiations is the way forward. Reliance on struggle from below has much more to offer workers, both in defending living standards today, and in getting the union movement in the best shape to withstand future management attacks. Without such a mobilisation, we are faced with both falling living standards and the reinforcement of membership inactivity which has been the outcome of what is basically an embryonic “post-Fordist” strategy by the ACTU in the 1980s.

The political context of the debate

Finally, we should consider the political context of the debate over post-Fordism. “Post-Fordist” ideas are presented by their advocates as a new development. In fact, they are little more than a souped-up version of the “end of class” theories of the 1950s and 1960s. Hyman notes the change in intellectual climate from the period when Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital set the terms of debate in the mid-1970s:

A decade ago, against the background of the collapse of post-war capitalism’s long expansionary phase, technological innovation and the reorganisation of production were widely identified as a mechanism for the mass destruction of jobs and the degradation of many of those that remained. Yet today…the prevailing mood of sociologists appears increasingly optimistic: microelectronic technology, it is commonly argued, provides the means not to reinforce but to reverse the methods established by Taylor and Ford, beneficently transforming social relations within production.[41]

The departure from Braverman is not confined to the relationship between technological innovation and skill. The ideological shift also involves laying the blame on “restrictive work practices” as an impediment to the harmonious post-Fordist future. The increasing popularity of such ideas has to be rooted in the growth of ideas on the left that the “old notions” of class struggle are becoming obsolescent. This is something which has a near-universal application. Guille et al provide an analysis of

the decline which has occurred in the significance attached to class in sociological and political analysis. This is occurring in a number of distinct areas: for example, references to the politics of “social movements” rather than “class politics” and the reappearance of Weberian analysis in sociology… More generally, there has been a shift to the subjective and the individual.[42]

It is this view, rather than one focused on social classes, that underlies appeals to “remove irrational constraints on people’s creativity…such as despotic and hierarchical management systems”.[43] However, what may be irrational about management from the point of view of those who are managed may make perfect sense to their managers.

The shift away from class analysis is not just a swing in the pendulum of academic fashion. Its roots lie in real changes that have taken place in the balance of class forces since Braverman was more in vogue. In the early 1970s, strikes toppled the Heath government in Britain and metalworkers’ strikes won massive wage increases in Australia. Even those who were hostile to the labour movement could hardly avoid coming to grips with the idea of class confrontation. The confidence of the working class in Australia to engage in that confrontation has been substantially undermined by a range of factors since then. These are the circumstances in which ideas of class collaboration can grow. These ideas in turn can then have an effect in deepening the downturn in struggle. The fact that the level of strikes has declined is not evidence of a new era of cooperation, but rather that the employers are winning the class struggle.[44]

What IS so profoundly demoralising about the ideas of “post-Fordism” is the fatalistic defeatism that characterises them. Several times Mathews despairs of bringing about fundamental change; in Age of Democracy, he throws his hands up in frustration at the “intractable political situations” of the Middle East, Northern Ireland and elsewhere.[45] At other times his program of reform collapses in the face of the power of the multinationals.[46] His ideas end up celebrating that which is made to seem inevitable, the decline of the labour movement and the elimination of any program of radical political change.[47] As socialists, we should reject the defeatism and right wing conclusions of Mathews’ work. Notions of “post-Fordism” are of little help in explaining social developments as they are presently occurring: as a strategy for radical political change, they are positively debilitating, helpful only for aspirant “left” bureaucrats eager to defend award restructuring and the Accord and “sophisticated” (yet utterly philistine) intellectual renegades from the 1970s.

[1] This article is based on a longer article of the same title, prepared for the 1989 Conference of The Australian Sociological Association by myself and Diane Fieldes.

[2] The best examples of their work being R. Boyer, The Search for Labour Market Flexibility: The European Economies in Transition, Oxford, 1988; A. Lipietz, Mirages and Miracles: The Crisis of Global Fordism, London, 1987; and M. Aglietta, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: the US Experience, London, 1979.

[3] Such theorists include Michael Piore and Charles Sabel. See their definitive work The Second Industrial Divide, Basic Books, New York, 1984.

[4] These have included, in addition to the text under review, Age of Democracy: the Politics of Post-Fordism, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1989; A Culture of Power: Rethinking Labour Movement Goals for the 1990s, Pluto Press, Sydney, 1988; and “Trade Unions and Work Organisation”, in E. Willis (ed.), Technology and the Labour Process, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1988.

[5] This political offensive against the left is brought out most aggressively in Age of Democracy, in which Mathews accuses the left, amongst other things, of provoking the death squads of Central America (p162) and Thatcher’s attacks on the National Union of Miners (p3).

[6] Indeed, in the mid 1970s he translated much of Gramsci’s work on factory councils.

[7] See C. Harman, Explaining The Crisis, London, 1984, for a Marxist analysis of the roots of the present economic stagnation.

[8] See his glowing reference to the case study of Shenandoah Life Insurance in the US, where productivity rose by 50 percent and the workforce was cut by 10 percent. Tools of Change, pp100-101.

[9] S. Wood, “What is Post-Fordism?”, Background Paper for session at FAFO, Oslo, Norway, April 1989, p19. A more accessible version of this paper appears in S. Wood, The Transformation of Work, London, 1989.

[10] K. Williams, T. Cutler, J. Williams and C. Haslam, “The End of Mass Production?”, Economy and Society, 1987, p426.

[11] Wood, “What is Post-Fordism?”, p19.

[12] Something which even Piore and Sabel recognise; The Second Industrial Divide, Chapter 4.

[13] Wood, “What is Post-Fordism?”, pp19 and 31.

[14] See H. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, New York, 1974, p435, and R. Hyman and R. Price, The New Working Class? White Collar Workers and their Organisations, London, 1983.

[15] See Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, p425.

[16] Willis, Technology and the Labour Process, Introduction, p15.

[17] See R. Wilkinson, “Management Strategies in the Motor Vehicle Industry”, in Willis, Technology and the Labour Process, p141 for details.

[18] A. Pollert, “Dismantling Flexibility”, Capital and Class, 34, 1988, p56.

[19] D. Butler, “Secretarial Skills and Office Technology”, in Willis, Technology and the Labour Process, p30.

[20] ibid., pp23-32.

[21] As Kamata illustrates in his Japan in the Passing Lane, 1983.

[22] See R. Hyman, “Flexible Specialisation: Miracle or Myth?” in R. Hyman and W. Streeck (eds), New Technology and Industrial Relations, Oxford, 1988, p55.

[23] See J.B. Foster, “The Fetish of Fordism”, Monthly Review, 39, 10, 1988, p20.

[24] For an expansion of this point, see D. Gordon, “Capitalist Efficiency and Socialist Efficiency”, Monthly Review, 28, 3, July-August 1976.

[25] Mathews, Age of Democracy, p160.

[26] ibid., p38.

[27] Hyman, “Flexible Specialisation: Miracle or Myth?”, p54.

[28] Wood, “What is Post-Fordism?”, p23.

[29] S. Frenkel and M. Shaw, “No Tears for the Second Tier: Productivity Bargaining in the Australian Metal Industry”, Australian Bulletin of Labour, 15, 2, 1989, p101.

[30] Mathews, Age of Democracy, p151.

[31] ibid., pp164-66.

[32] R. Badham and J. Mathews, “The New Production Systems Debate”, Labour and Industry, 2, 2, 1989, p232.

[33] M. Rimmer and J. Zappala, “Labour Market Flexibility and the Second Tier”, Australian Bulletin of Labour, 14, 4, 1988.

[34] Frenkel and Shaw, “No Tears for the Second Tier”.

[35] ibid p100.

[36] Rimmer and Zappala, “Labour Market Flexibility and the Second Tier”, p588.

[37] ABS Cat. No. 6325.0. Trade Union Members, Australia, 1988.

[38] Mathews, Age of Democracy, p39.

[39] See K. Williams, J. Williams and C. Haslam, The Breakdown of Austin-Rover, Leamington Spa, 1987 and J. Holloway, “The Red Rose of Nissan”, in Capital and Class, 32, 1987.

[40] P. Marden, “Flexibility and Labour Regulation: A Suggested Interpretation of the Determinants of Changing Work Relations”, Paper for Institute of Australian Geographers Study Group on Industrial Change, 1989, p9, and Australian Financial Review, 13 October 1989.

[41] Hyman, “Flexible Specialisation: Miracle or Myth?”, p48.

[42] H. Guille, D. Sappey and M. Winter, “Can ‘Industrial Relations’ Survive Without Unions?”, in M. Bray and D. Kelly, Issues and Trends in Australian Industrial Relations, AIRAANZ, Sydney, 1989, p38.

[43] Mathews, Age of Democracy, p50.

[44] Hyman, “Flexible Specialisation: Miracle or Myth?”, p55.

[45] Mathews, Age of Democracy, p3.

[46] ibid., p151.

[47] Pollert, “Dismantling Flexibility”, p72.