The second primitive accumulation

One of the more memorable parts of Capital is Marx’s description of the “so-called primitive accumulation of capital” — the historical process where rural people were dispossessed of access to land and forced into industrial employment in cities like Birmingham and Manchester (link). It seems as though we’ve seen another kind of primitive accumulation in the past thirty years — the ruin of well-paid manufacturing jobs based on unionized labor, the disappearance of local retail stores, the extinction of bookstores and locally owned hardware stores, all of which offered a large number of satisfying jobs. We’ve seen a new set of bad choices for displaced workers — McDonald’s servers, Walmart greeters, and Amazon fulfillment workers. And this structural economic change threatens to create a permanent under-class of workers earning just enough to get by.

So what is the future of work and class in advanced economies? Scott Shane’s major investigative story in the New York Times describing Amazon’s operations in Baltimore (link) makes for sobering reading on this question. The story describes work conditions in an Amazon fulfillment center in Baltimore that documents the intensity, pressure, and stress created for Amazon workers by Amazon’s system of work control. This system depends on real-time monitoring of worker performance, with automatic firings coming to workers who fall short on speed and accuracy after two warnings. Other outlets have highlighted the health and safety problems created by the Amazon system, including this piece on worker safety in the Atlantic by Will Evans; link. It is a nightmarish description of a work environment, and hundreds of thousands of workers are employed under these conditions.

Imagine the difference you would experience as a worker in the hardware store mentioned in the New York Times story (driven out of business by online competition) and as a worker in an Amazon fulfillment center. In the hardware store you provide value to the business and the customers; you have social interaction with your fellow workers, your boss, and the customers; you work in a human-scale enterprise that actually cares whether you live or die, whether you are sick or well; and to a reasonable degree you have a degree of self-direction in your work. Your expertise in home improvement, tools, and materials is valuable to the customers, which brings them back for the next project, and it is valuable to you as well. You have the satisfaction of having knowledge and skills that make a difference in other people’s lives. In the fulfillment center your every move is digitally monitored over the course of your 10-hour shift, and if you fall short in productivity or quality after two warnings, you are fired. You have no meaningful relationships with fellow workers — how can you, with the digital quotas you must fulfill every minute, every hour, every day? And you have no — literally no — satisfaction and fulfillment as a human being in your work. The only value of the work is the $15 per hour that you are paid; and yet it is not enough to support you or your family (about $30,000 per year). As technology writer Amy Webb of the Future Today Institute is quoted in the Times article, [It’s not that we may be replaced by robots,] “it’s that we’ve been relegated to robot status.”

What kind of company is that? It is hard to avoid the idea that it is the purest expression that we have ever seen of the ideal type of a capitalist enterprise: devoted to growth, cost avoidance, process efficiency, use of technology, labor control, rational management, and strategic and tactical reasoning based solely on business growth and profit-maximizing calculations. It is a Leviathan that neither Hobbes nor Marx could really have visualized. And social wellbeing — of workers, of communities, of country, of the global future — appears to have no role whatsoever in these calculations. The only affirmative values expressed by the company are “serving the consumer” and being a super-efficient business entity.

What is most worrisome about the Amazon employment philosophy is its single-minded focus on “worker efficiency” at every level, using strict monitoring techniques and quotas to enforce efficient work. And the ability to monitor is increased asymptotically by the use of technology — sensors, cameras, and software that monitor the worker’s every movement. It is the apotheosis of F.W. Taylor’s theories from the 1900s of “scientific management” and time-motion studies. Fundamentally Taylor regarded the worker as a machine-like component of the manufacturing process, whose motions needed to be specified and monitored so as to bring about the most efficient possible process. And, as commentators of many ideological stripes have observed, this is a fundamentally dehumanizing view of labor and the worker. This seems to be precisely the ideal model adopted by Amazon, not only in its fulfillment centers but its delivery drivers, its professional staff, and every other segment of the workforce Amazon can capture.

Business and technology historian David Hounshell presciently noticed the resurgence of Taylorism in a 1988 Harvard Business Review article on “modern manufacturing”; link. (This was well before the advent of online business and technology-based mega-companies.) Here are a few relevant paragraphs from his piece:

Rather than seeing workers as assets to be nurtured and developed, manufacturing companies have often viewed them as objects to be manipulated or as burdens to be borne. And the science of manufacturing has taken its toll. Where workers were not deskilled through extreme divisions of labor, they were often displaced by machinery. For many companies, the ideal factory has been — and continues to be — a totally automated, workerless facility. 

Now in the wake of the eroding competitive position of U.S. manufacturing companies, is it time for an end to Taylor’s management tradition? The books answer in the affirmative, calling for the institution of a less mechanistic, less authoritarian, less functionally divided approach to manufacturing. Dynamic Manufacturing focuses explicitly on repudiating Taylorism, which it takes to be a system of “command and control.” American Business: A Two-Minute Warning is written in a more popular vein, but characterizes U.S. manufacturing methods and the underlying mind-set of manufacturing managers in unmistakably similar ways. Taylorism is the villain and the anachronism. 

Predictably, both books arrive at their diagnoses and prescriptions through their respective evaluations of the “Japanese miracle.” Whereas U.S. manufacturing is rigid and hierarchical, Japanese manufacturing is flexible, agile, organic, and holistic. In the new competitive environment — which favors the company that can continually generate new, high-quality products — the Japanese are more responsive. They will continue to dominate until U.S. manufacturers develop manufacturing units that are, in Hayes, Wheelwright, and Clark’s words, “dynamic learning organizations.” Their book is intended as a primer. (link)

Plainly the more positive ideas associated with positive human resources theory about worker motivation, knowledge, and creativity play no role in Amazon’s thinking about the workplace. And this implies a grim future for work — not only in this company, but in many others who emulate the workplace model pioneered by Amazon.

The abuses of the first fifty years of industrial capitalism eventually came to an end through a powerful union movement. Workers in railroads, textiles, steel, and the automobile industry eventually succeeded in creating union organizations that were able to effectively represent their interests in the workplace. So where is the Amazon worker’s ability to resist? The New York Times story (link) makes it clear that individual workers have almost no ability to influence Amazon’s practices. They can choose not to work for Amazon, but they can’t join a union, because Amazon has effectively resisted unionization. And in places like Baltimore and other cities where Amazon is hiring, the other job choices are even worse (even lower paid, if they exist at all). Amazon makes a great deal of money on their work, and it manages its great initiatives based on their Chaplin-esque speed of completion (one-day delivery). But there is very little ability to change the workplace towards a more human-scale one, and a workplace where the worker’s positive human capacities find fulfillment. An Amazon fulfillment center is anything but that when it comes to the lives of the workers who make it run.

Is there a better philosophy that Amazon might adopt for its work environments? Yes. It is a framework that places worker wellbeing at the same level as efficiency, “1-day delivery” and profitability. It is an approach that gives greater flexibility to shop-floor-level workers, and relaxes to some degree the ever-rising quotas for piece work per minute. It is an approach that sets workplace expectations in a way that fully considers the safety, stress, and health of the workers. It is an approach that embodies genuine respect and concern for its workers — not as public relations initiative, but as a guiding philosophy of the workplace.

There is a hard question and a harder question posed by this idea, however. Is there any reason to think that Amazon will ever evolve in this more humane direction? And harder, is there any reason to think that any large modern corporation can embody these values? Based on the current behavior of Amazon as a company, from top to bottom, the answer to the first question is “no, not unless workers gain real power in the workplace through unionization or some other form of representation in production decisions.” And to the second question, a qualified yes: “yes, a more humane workplace is possible, if there is broad involvement in business decisions by workers as well as shareholders and top executives.” But this too requires a resurgence of some form of organized labor — which our politics of the past 20 years have discouraged at every turn.

Or to quote Oliver Goldsmith in The Deserted Village (1770):

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made:
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroy’d, can never be supplied.

So where did the dispossessed wind up in nineteenth century Britain? Here is how Engels described the social consequences of this “primitive accumulation” for the working people of Britain in his book, The Condition of the Working Class in England:

It is only when [the observer] has visited the slums of this great city that it dawns upon him that the inhabitants of modern London have had to sacrifice so much that is best in human nature in order to create those wonders of civilisation with which their city teems. The vast majority of Londoners have had to let so many of their potential creative faculties lie dormant, stunted and unused in order that a small, closely-knit group of their fellow citizens could develop to the full the qualities with which nature has endowed them. (30)

This passage, written in 1845, could with minor changes of detail describe the situation of Amazon workers today. “The vast majority … have had to let so many of their potential creative faculties lie dormant, stunted and unused in order that a small, closely-knit group of their fellow citizens could develop to the full the qualities with which nature has endowed them.”

And what about income and standard of living? The graph of median US income by quintile above in constant 2018 dollars tells a very stark story. Since 1967 only the top quintile of household income has demonstrated significant growth (in a timeframe of more than fifty years); and the top 5% of households shows the greatest increase of any group. 80% of US households are barely better off today than they were in 1967; whereas the top 5% of households have increased their incomes by almost 250% in real terms. This has a very clear, unmistakeable implication: that working people, including service workers, industrial workers, and most professionals have received a declining share of the economic product of the nation. Amazon warehouse workers fall in the 2nd-lowest quintile (poorest 21-40%). (It would be very interesting to have a time series of Amazon’s wage bill for blue-collar and white-collar wages excluding top management as a fraction of company revenues and net revenues since 2005.)

Here is a relevant post on the possibilities created for a more fair industrial society by the institution of worker-owned enterprises (link), and here is a post on the European system of workers councils (link), a system that gives workers greater input into decisions about operations and work conditions on the shop floor.

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