Marx and workplace change

This is not a political blog. It does however use a Marxist “visor” as a possible means of considering the fundamental difficulties individuals and organisations are experiencing in attempting to bring about new ways of working deemed appropriate to the technological age. Why is the shift proving so problematic despite an active and informed lobby, and a host of relevant experience on which to draw?

Having presented this in five minutes on an impromptu basis at the FCRE seminar on Wednesday of this week, I have tried to set out my thoughts in a more considered way below.

First, the philosophy.

Marx’s theory of infrastructure and superstructure is core to his theory of history, described in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859).

The theory gives us two layers of our existence. At the base is the infrastructure – the relationships which people enter into with one another in order to fulfill their basic needs (the relations of production), and that are “specific, necessary and independent of their will”. Essentially, the economic system.

From these relationships is grown the superstructure, which sits on top, and includes social constructs such as politics, religion, morality, and the law.

The infrastructure is the exclusive causal force in history. While the superstructure provides important causal factors, it can never be the fundamental cause.

As the forces of production change and advance, existing forms of social organisation become inefficient and a barrier to further progress. Eventually the relations of production become unsustainable, and revolutionary change brings about new, appropriate relations. In this manner, Marx held, we have moved from antiquity through slave society, feudalism and capitalism. He believed that socialism and then finally communism would complete mankind’s journey of historical inevitability.

We can overlay the theory onto work and workplace in the 21st Century.

The infrastructure is the system of management, and the organisational culture it supports and is supported by. This remains – with some enhancements and frills – based upon Taylor’s principles of scientific management. We still see organisations as machines, and the humans within them as components.

The superstructure that grows from this includes the societal constructs of work – the nature and design of jobs and their contractual form, our relations with one another in a workplace, the physical workplace itself and the technology with which we are equipped or is available to us to complete our work.

Effectively the revolutionary change that will herald a re-appraisal of work and the workplace and bring new ways of working into the mainstream can only be created through fundamental change in the infrastructure. This does not deny that changes in thinking about when, where and how we work, and the physicality and technology of the workplace are not important causal factors, but without a change in the system of management and organisational culture, the adoption of new ways of working will not become mainstream.  

The good news – if one chooses to adopt this conceptual framework – for all those actively seeking to change thought, practice and culture through the superstructure?

Taking this perspective, the principles of scientific management that have been with us for almost a century are creaking under the strain. The cumulative effects of the advancements made in the last twenty years – seen through an idea conceived over fifty years before it still – might promise that its demise is a historical inevitability.

Not long now?

3 thoughts on “Marx and workplace change

  1. This seems to match up with the theme of the Hub Westminster social enterprises event I went to instead of FCRE and the lecture that Bridget Hardy went to today (see below)?

    Post-bureaucratic Public Services: Future Capabilities

    Jonathan Trevor, Lecturer in Human Resources & Organisations, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

    Whilst easy to demonise, the bureaucratic model of organisation can be credited with much of the economic prosperity and stability of the past 100 years. However, in the face of increasing economic change and uncertainty, some commentators are hailing the demise of the bureaucratic industrial age and the dawn of the post-bureaucratic information age. An age in which hierarchical organisations are replaced by informal networks of empowered communities. Collaboration is the new watchword.

    The reality of this is not so straightforward, especially in the context of public service provision. This lecture shares research reviewing distinct capabilities within four organisations, as they attempt to navigate the challenging waters of the post-bureaucratic environment. It will also address how public service organisations are developing with their environment, what critical capabilities are required to secure sustained innovation and the implications for public service strategy, organisation and leadership.

  2. I don’t believe in any teleological theories of history, but if you are looking at work through a Marxian lens, surely Taylorism is part of the superstructure. It is a set of ‘scientific’ principles that removes autonomy from the people who execute the work and puts planning and design in the hands of a separate group of people.

  3. Pingback: Days of future past | workessence

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