Human subjectivity administration and labor organization

Português: Reflexão sobre o trabalho: Apropriação da subjetividade da classe trabalhadora: burocracia e autogestão, por Felipe Luiz Gomes e Silva.

Human subjectivity administration and labor organization

Professor Dr.Felipe Luiz Gomes e Silva

Universidade Estadual Paulista.

Professor Assistente Doutor.

 [email protected]



This paper intends to make a reflection on the human subjectivity administration in automobile industries. For production efficiency, the joint of workers to production process is such an important standpoint. The endless rejection of the working class to intense and repetitive work has brought new administration strategies that search for efficiency and productivity through the establishment of an orderly worker collective. Since the second half of the twentieth century, a new way of managing people that somehow, played this historical role has emerged.

Key words: Administration, Labor Organization, Human Subjectivity.












1. The Ford-Taylor administration specificity of the working force: its constant crisis.

This paper has as its purpose to highlight some important points concerning the organization and the labor process in metal mechanical industries, especially the automobile industries. As already known, this last one, since the introduction of the belt conveyor, has been trough the “rejection of the working class to intense and repetitive work” (Friedmann, 1972).

It is important to recall that in the year of 1914, in order to keep a working force of 14.000 workers, Henry Ford had to employ 53.000 employers a year. After the coming of the monetary aid (The Five-Dollar-Day), the employees’ rotation (turnover) dropped to 6.508 workers (Ford, 1926).

As history tells us, the attempting of managing the working force through salary encouragement – “The Ford’s high salary ideology” – did not fully extinguish the rejection of workers to Ford’s method. The conflict between capital and working class begins to change, as time passed, into new forms of human subjectivity administration.

“The absenteeism, the turnover, the work poorly done and the sabotage as well became the sore of the American automobile industry: Fortune, a monthly magazine read by the manager elite, describes in details such struggle of the working class against the organizational dominative methods, that remained the same since the beginning of the Taylor’s (…). The turnover, in other words, the workers’ voluntary mobility, changing jobs in search of better working opportunities, is such a distress for the capitalists’ class. The average turnover rate at Ford, in 1969, was of 25% mostly among younger workers… Some of those employees leave their jobs, misunderstanding a factory department head, at noon, and leaves without his payment. (…) The low productivity explains the workers’ strength to exploration. Such strength, which is shown by rhythm break, by the dissimulated sabotage and by the high number of broken piecework, is a criticism to the “patronal authority”. (Pignon, and Querzola,1980:94)”. (Our italics) 

Simone Weil (1975), philosopher and researcher, in a conference performed to an audience made up by workers, in the year of 1937, had already shown the specificity of the so-called labor rationalization methods.

“Many times one speaks about the industrial revolution exactly as the transformation the industry had been trough just when science and production started to walk together, so the big industry came up. However, there was a second industrial revolution. The first one is defined by the scientific employment of the inactive substances and the nature forces. The second is defined by the scientific employment of the living substance, in other words, of men (Weil, 1975:111)”. (Our italics)

The beginning of the working class strength to the labor rationalization Taylorist method is partly explained by this clear distinction. The claim of employing science in living substances – the human being – is actually unusual. According to the researcher Braverman (1981), the Taylor-Ford labor organization rationality is characterized by the desire to turn man into machine.

Therefore, the Ford’s assembly line crisis belongs to its nature; even with the introduction of the belt conveyor, the human labor still is the dominating element, in other words, quality and productivity still depend upon the collective worker willing. This close relation between the labor process subjective regards and the material productivity, besides showing the specificity of the organized productive systems in Ford’s way, it also highlights the beginnings of its permanent crisis, either latent or evident (Silva. 1998, 2001). 

So, we are before a very special case of “resources” administration, because before the ever rejection of the working class to degrading, unqualified, repetitive and intense labor – beyond the wage encouragement techniques, new management schemes have emerged, in the attempt to bringing human behavior to Ford’s production process: the conditioning and the human compliance.

2. The human subjectivity administration and the suffering at work.

2.1. The agony of accomplishing a crumbled labor : “le travail en miettes”.

It is possible to notice, in meaningful language expressions, the root of the constant crisis of the Taylor-Ford labor process. For instance, an employee who works at an assembly line says: “the accomplishment of a crumbled labor becomes an agony” (Friedmann,1981).

For many workers, only the refuge from the habit – built by the repetition manual gestures – provides “some relief” for the human suffering. In order to keep a certain level of “well-being” the worker needs to do his duties in such way it would not require high assiduity of attention; fortunately, to be able to work thinking about something else (“adrift spirit”) avoids the production rationalization process to be total, perfect. Some new words from Simone Weil (1937):

This system brought the labor monotony. Dubreilh e Ford say that the monotone labor is not annoying to the working class (…) if it actually happens that with such system, the monotony be supportable for the workers, maybe it is the worst thing to be said about a system. Of course monotony at labor always starts as a suffering, and if it reaches to habit, it is probably due to moral diminution. Actually, nobody gets used to it, unless he could think of something else while working. In this case, it becomes necessary to work in such rhythm not requiring more attention assiduity than the work itself does (Weil, 1937: 124)”. (Our italics).

However, administration science keeps on searching for new theories in order to allow the factory head to know it all; it is necessary to integrate the worker “spirit” to production process. The search for the perfect rationalization/servitude relation  – with no defensive practice development (“to duck out”) – will be, for the misadventure of human beings, the subject for researches of the American behavior sciences, and especially Psychology applied to administration.

Since the known “Hawthorne Experience” performed at the “Western Electric” company in Chicago, USA, in the years from 1927 to 1932, on a telephone set assembly line, that the administration theory highlights the importance of the psychological encouragement for the building of the workers’ loyalty to the company. The “human relations unrest at industries” is pioneer on supporting the employment of symbolical encouragement as a way of stimulation and conditioning of workers’ behavior. As an example, the Room of Industrial Tensions Therapy, followed by a Psychologists/Counselors team, had as its main purpose to guarantee an organization free of friction (smooth-working) with the highest efficiency as possible. (Friedmann, 1981)

As a matter of fact, in the attempt of workers to believe that they are responsible for the “industrial tensions” the role psychology plays is of denying the social, politic and economic beginning of the class unrests.

“Clearly speaking, it is just a matter of going from the concerns regarding this or that worker (job factors) to concerns not regarding the labor itself, but the worker personality (non-job factors). The worker, instead of feeling misunderstood and injured, finds himself as a victim of circumstances whose responsibility is not the Company’s (Friedmann, 1981:268).” (Our italics)

The “psychophysical adjustment” to the production rhythm requires a certain muscular and nervous expense, followed by a “new type of fatigue” (Gramsci, 1978).

Concerning this “new type of fatigue”, the workers’ speaking, who work reproducing stereotyped gestures, shows us many things. The numb feeling breaks with the time notion; human life is nothing but a single mimicry, a semblance.

“It seems like, on the other hand, a slow and continuous movement of all cars. Concerning the duties, it seems to be done with a kind of long-suffering monotony, however without the precipitation i was expecting for. It is just like a long glaucous sliding, from which, after a while, a sort of cyclic and regular sleepiness guided by sounds, shocks, lightening, come out. The “music” from the assembly line, the sliding of grayish carcass of brute metal plate, the gesture routine: I feel progressively numb. Time stops.(…) It is just like a progressive anesthesia: We could be glad with the torpor of the nothing and to see months passing by, maybe years, why not?(…) The real danger starts when one stands the initial shock, the numbness. From this point on, it is just a matter of forgetting even the reasons of his presence at the factory and being glad with the miracle of surviving. Getting used to it. It seems we must get used to everything. Avoiding struggling, keeping yourself from all harm, negotiating with the tiredness and most of all, sheltering yourself in a life’s semblance (Linhart, 1986: 12-43)”.

The long passage above mentioned is a clear witness of the human suffering, that no doubt, comes from debased and abstracted labor. Lately, as results of his scientific researches, Dejours (1987) shows that the suffering, the anxiety and the fear of workers in the Ford’s assembly line are due to a working rhythm commanded by the management head, which requires a “high motor psycho-sensorial load”. So he expresses himself:

“The anxiety responds to the labor, the production and the speed rhythm and, through these regards, to salary, to bonuses and to financial advantages as well. The status of working by production is fully impregnated with the risk of not following the proposed rhythm and of “loosing the job” ( Dejours, 1987: 73)”.

The constant rejection of the working class to the stubborn worldwide competition stimulates the crisis (open crisis) of the Taylor-Ford production system, outstanding locus of the unqualified labor. Such wage earners claim, supported by the “wild strikes”, for basic changes on the labor organization. According to C. Dejours (1987), the expressions “down with the horrible rhythm” and “down with the separation of manual and intellectual labor” clearly show the proletarian’s refusal to the insupportable physical and mental debasement brought by the production rhythm intensification.

Such “wild strikes” confirms the choice of the year of 1968 as historical reference. “Wild strikes” and non-qualified workers strikes spontaneously emerge, many times alongside of the union initiative. They break the vindicatory tradition and bring up new subjects: “to change life”, is such an original, hardly reducible claim that plunges government and patronage into a real confusion, at least until the current economic crisis, which trends to attenuate qualitative claims. (…) Claims such as “down with the horrible rhythm”, “down with the separation of manual and intellectual labor” and “to change lifefight against the labor organization (Dejours, 1987:24).” (Our italics)

The article published in the New York Times newspaper in August the 23rd of 1973 clearly denounces the crisis of the labor processes organized on Taylor-Ford standards. As an example, the Fiat Motor Company enterprise of Rome, had not less than 21.000 absent employees on a certain Monday, and the average absenteeism was of about 14.000 employees a day. (Silva,1998, 1999)

2.2. The implicit knowledge assumption and the stimulated engagement: “la mentalité des pompiers”.

As a response to the open crisis, from the second half of the twentieth century, the production system in flexible mass (Just in time/Kanban/CCQ/Kaizen/Multi-skill) emerges in Japan. Such system develops a new way of managing the working force that leads to the intensification of the production rhythm to extreme standards (management by stress), once it adds to the workers repetitive gestures, the stimulated engagement.

The sociologist Danièle Linhart (1999) shows that the flexible enterprise strategy consists of ruling the worker consciousness, bringing the la mentalité des pompiers  (“firemen mentality”): always ready and on guard to perform repetitive tasks with quality and productivity required by the capital.

“The Japanese “self-control” means an increase on the work’s day-journey as well as a self-managed domination devilish system, which far outdoes the disciplinary performances the old conventional controlling methods could ever obtain (Dejours, 1999:49)”.

In the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (California-USA), as an example, the labor cycles are too short; the time spent between the beginning and the finish of a multifunctional task is no longer than 60 seconds. In the Suzuki enterprise, Kosai, Japan, the worker develops a sequence of physic movements followed by the rhythm of the sound of synthetic music; he assembles, in an almost hypnotic mental state, a medium size automobile each 58 seconds (Ocada, 2002).

According to the experience of a Brazilian journalist who had worked as arubaito (unstable and temporary labor) in the Kubota enterprise, Japan – agricultural accessories and tractors factory – tasks are heavy and repetitive. He used to perform four different tasks (enriched function) and had a payment of 12 reais an hour; but he was no registered, had no thirteenth salary either and had no reserve fund as well. According to him:

“I used to tighten screws, to push machines to the assembly line, to bring pieceworks, to take empty boxes to the storehouse, among others. The more I worked, the more I heard hayaku (faster). Unfortunately I had done some inexcusable thing for the local labor relations: I complained about the abuse and suggested some changes as well. The Japanese system hates complains and changes ( Higobassi, 1998:109)”.

Even before such empiric evidences, some researchers such as Womack, et al (1992), Hirata (1998), support the thesis that the multivalent tasks performed by Japanese workers outstrip the split between the manual and intellectual labor, in other words, it qualifies again the labor process.

Actually, the “multifunctionality” exercise (multi-skill) has followed a multi-divided, engaged, flexible and pro-active worker. As the labor circle, the reduction of the dampening supplies and the principle of the continuous improvement (kaizen) emerged; the process of the labor alienation became even more serious, as a matter of fact: the assumption by the capital of the working class implicit knowledge.

According to Nonoka (1991), as the JIT/Kanban system and the labor circles were introduced, the knowledge stops from being some few workers exclusiveness and it begins to be spread by the enterprise’s administration.

This way, that is where a new organizational configuration emerges from, and along with the laborative rights weakness and the straight coercion of market on the human subjectivity, allows the definition (again) of the way to explore the labor force.

According to Pierre Bourdieu (1998), the precariousness in labor relations brings a new kind of oppression: the rational administration of the “staff” through insecurity and fear. Such coercion is called “autocratic hegemonic regime” by Burawoy (1990) or “new regime of subordination” by Garrahan et al (1994). Some of the results from the employment of those new management techniques are the diseases and deaths brought by work overdose (Valadares, N., 1995; Sargentini, M., 1996; Dejours, C., 2000).

“Interesting study performed by Dr. Tetsuro Kato (Kato, 1994), in Japan, shows that the employed human force has experienced a phenomenon called karoshi, which means death by overwork. Technically, such social-medical term is employed to describe diseases, mostly cardiovascular ones, brought by the unmerciful expenditure of hours and psychic and physic energy in productive activities. (Valadares,1995:22)”. 

According to this researcher, up to 10.000 workers, under sixty years of age, annually die of infarct of the myocardium, thrombosis and other causes. Such deaths are consequence of the pressure the employees suffer from the enterprises, including pressure in order not to have vacations or having spare time. This style of labor force consumption has been called “from seven up to eleven”, because as the name says, the employee goes out his house at 7:00 am and does not return until 11:00 pm. In the lack of a strong union and public politics in order to protect the workers, a non-governmental organization (Karoshi Hot Line), which established the National Council of protection for Karoshi’s victims, emerged in Japan, where several attorneys work at.

It is important to highlight that the quality/productivity administration speech goes beyond the industry world, contaminating all social environments, especially the educational institutions.

3. Conclusions: The self-administration, the productive forces assumption and the labor cleavage outstripping.

As we have been observing, the flexible enterprise – the Toyota productive model – search for a raise on the production velocity and an improvement on the merchandises’ quality through the perfect manual gesture synchronicity (JIT/Kanban), in other words, the perfect sense of action and reaction from mind and body, leading the alienation of human being to paroxysm.

Therefore, we ask: Is there, in Japan, any evident unrest from the working class against such total administration process? Or else, such “people administration” system did get to a point of perfect rationalization of the human behavior?

According to M. Nomura (1997), there is, in Japan, certain strength from the working class to the “JIT/Kanban system” of “staff” administration. He assures, for instance, that in the Toyota enterprise, from the total of young workers employed in the month of April of 1991, 25% submitted resignation after eight months, in December of the same year. Furthermore, only 45% of them would recommend their sons the type of work they currently develop, they say their tasks are hard and annoying (Nomura, apud Salerno, 1997).

We are now able to assure that this is one of the reasons one could explain why the Japanese enterprises are importing working force from several worldwide markets. Besides the Koreans, the Chinese and Hungarians, there are about 265.962 Nipponese-Brazilians (dekasseguis) reckoned by the last census of the Japanese Justice Ministry, “willfully” performing the duty (kitanai), the dangerous (kiken) and the heavy (kitsui) tasks.

In short, we can find within such “staff” administration system – the workers active engagement – both its power and weakness. We are talking about minds and bodies compromised with the productive process, with suffering and exploration. It is appropriated to ask: for how long will they stand it?

The manual and intellectual labor cleavage outstripping – industry bureaucracy – basis of maintenance of society split into classes and of the oppressive structure, should be done by the collective willing of workers who are involved in a struggle for the production self-administration systems, which should be guided by a project of the foundation of a human sociability not intermediated by the capital.

We recall, once again, to the deep critical analysis developed by the philosopher Simone Weil (1937) about the “oppression of the working class at the working place that follows extended sufferings”. In her opinion, in the struggle for social transition, collectivizing factories is not enough, besides the assumption of the production resources by the working class; the building of a new way of organization becomes necessary.

“If someday it happens the bosses to be ousted, if factories were collectivized, nothing is going to change about this basic problem: what is required for the productivity to be as high as possible is not necessarily equal to what makes the employees who work at the factory satisfied (WEIL, 1975)”.

Therefore, we agree with André Gorz (1980), when he highlights that K. Marx use to think about “the productive force assumption” and not only in the “production sources socialization”. The actual meaning for the concept “the productive force assumption” requires a struggle for the outstripping of the labor’s bureaucratic division.

“Becoming collectively “owners of the industries” does not necessarily mean that the working class would be able to develop, through the work, a capacities totality, otherwise, while the material matrix remains unchanged, the “collective assumption” of the factory is nothing but an abstract legal entity transference, unable to put an end at the working oppression and subordination (Gorz, 1980:12)”.

Therefore, the struggle against the “devilish cadence”, by the reduction of the socially necessary working day’s journey and by the increase of time spent with free individual or collective activities, should be carried as one of the most important strategies for social transformation.

We recognize that the technical progress is a basic condition for outstripping repetitive and numb labor, but not enough. In order for such transformation process to happen, the presence of the subject becomes necessary, without which there is no history. It is the subject that breaks up with the oppression/exploration structure, rather than the system that, following certain hard laws, breaks up by itself.

The outstripping of this organizing way is a basic condition for mankind emancipation. The critical reflection on the labor bureaucratic organization and its respective managing ideologies, should not expect the promise of a new world, in other words, its questioning should belong to the theoretical and political concerns of the working class set and to the concerns of intellectual and technicians as well.

The ANTEAG (National Association of employees of self-administration enterprises) at the end of the year of 2001 assembles 365 enterprises with up to 36.200 workers total. The accomplishments were and have been distinguished by the regional, the production sectors, the history and the kind inequalities as well, but all fall across three great common questions: the economic-financial viability, the labor collective organization and the culture of workers themselves.

So, here is this great challenge, to match economy with fellowship. The experiences lived by workers in self-administrating enterprises show, above all, a subjective, cultural and educational meaning. The enterprises became real educative agencies, in other words, environments for citizenship practice.

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