[OPE-L] Complex and simple labour

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Sun Jun 10 2007 - 10:18:39 EDT

I studied this problem once as an Education student in 1982 (my MA research project was on human capital and the reproduction of labour power)  and came to the conclusion that it was much more difficult than one might think at first sight. Why I recommend reference to empirical and historical studies is because a whole lot of different tendencies and dimensions criss-cross each other (in the first instance, processes of deskilling and upskilling), so that we need to distinguish long term trends from shorter term trends, and because the measurement of skill-levels and abilities might be deceptive (when workers are hired, a judgement is made about whether they are able to do a job, on the basis of qualifications and experience, but the only proof is that they can do the job when employed; yet they may be able to do a job, although in fact they are not experienced and not formally qualified). 

If Marx says that the reduction of skilled to unskilled labour is effected "behind the backs" of the workers, he means presumably that it is "a not-consciously intended aggregate social effect", or byproduct of the functioning of a capitalist economy. But this could refer to at least ten different processes:

- the overall deskilling of job-content, possibly through the use of machinery (though using machinery may require new skills) 
- the convergence of different skill levels to an average skill level (a flattening of the real hierarchy of skill levels)
- changes in supply and demand for skilled and unskilled labour in the labour market
- the commensuration (equation) of labour of different skill levels in market-trade, such that x amount of skilled labour is worth Y amount of unskilled labour in money terms
- the commensuration of skills themselves (one skill is of equal value to another skill, or of a lesser or greater value)
- the reduction of the training costs of skilling
- the substitutability (replacement) of workers by other workers with a minimum required skill level
- the reduction of specialisation in work tasks in the work place (transition from specific to general labour)
- the increase in specialisation in work tasks of an low-skilled kind (e.g. Taylorism)
- changes in the functional (occupational) division of labour, such that different jobs require different "packets" of skills (the reallocation of skills within job designations)

All these processes may occur simultaneously, and autonomously or semi-autonomously from each other. 

The concept of skill-level is moreover somewhat ambiguous, because it has both qualitative and quantitative dimensions, which may make comparability accross time and across industries difficult. If we say worker X is more skilled than worker Y, this could be interpreted to mean that worker X is more competent/experienced at performing the same task as worker Y, but it could also mean that worker X has more skills, or a greater variety of skills than worker Y, or that the skills of worker X are qualitatively superior to worker Y. 

I think what Marx meant with the "law of value" is essentially that in a community of private producers whose market-oriented activities are carried on independently of each other, the labour they perform is necessarily adjusted to each other, and reconciled with social needs, *through the value of the products which they trade*. But the actual "mode of regulation" of that value might not be one and the same at all times and places. The determinants may change over time. Marx then develops a general theory of how that value is regulated, through the motion of capital - i.e. what are the objective determinants that shape the human valuations. 

As regards the skills of labour power, their transformation into a marketable commodity implies that they are *both* use-values and exchange-values. As use-values, the comparability of skills is always limited because they are qualities. We can really compare and measure only the proficiency (skill-level) with respect to skills of the same type, and with respect to the level of training they require.  But as quantifiable exchange-values expressible in money, skills are universally comparable, even if qualitatively different, and we can say that a specific "packet" of qualitatively different skills is worth more than another. 

Yet a skill which takes a long time in training or experience to acquire, may contingently have little cash-value - this is just to say that the mode of regulation and adjustment of skill-levels through value relations, and their valuation by people, is fraught with contradictions. In his latest book, Richard Sennett indeed refers to "the spectre of uselessness". 

To solve the problem of the reduction (really, the reducibility) of complex to simple labour, which involves both use-values and exchange-values, I think we need to specify first of all theoretically what "capital in general" requires of the skills of labour-power, and then we need to study how this plays out in real history, what the historical outcomes are (i.e. in the context of real-world competition and exploitation, and the resistance to it).  

"Capital in general" can be said to have potentially conflicting imperatives with regard to skills:

- the smallest skill prerequisites for a job (the greatest employability in this sense)
- the greatest relevant skill qua use-value, at the smallest possible cost qua exchange-value
- the greatest replacability and mobility of labour (flexibility)

Yet how these imperatives play out in real history is governed by numerous determinants, such as:

- the technologies of production
- the evolving social and technical division of labour, in which domination and control are just as important as technical factors
- the degree of complexity of society, creating new functions due to that complexity
- social competition and social conflicts, including the bargaining power of social classes and class fractions
- state policy with regard to labour markets and education
- professionalisation and protectionism
- levels of employment, unemployment and labour participation (demand and supply for labour)
- educational systems
- technical prerequisites for skill formation
- the ideologies governing skills

All of this fits into the "missing book on wage labour" that Lebowitz refers to.


This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Sat Jun 30 2007 - 00:00:04 EDT