Work, Self and Society
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Work, Self and Society

After Industrialism

Catherine Casey

  1. 256 pages
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eBook - ePub

Work, Self and Society

After Industrialism

Catherine Casey

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About This Book

Despite recent interest in the effects of restructuring and redesigning the work place, the link between individual identity and structural change has usually been asserted rather than demonstrated. Through an extensive review of data from field work in a multi-national corporation Catherine Casey changes this. She knows that changes currently occurring in the world of work are part of the vast social and cultural changes that are challenging the assumptions of modern industrialism. These events affect what people do everyday, and they are altering relations among ourselves and with the physical world. This valuable book is not only a critcal analysis of the transformations occurring in the world of work, but an exploration of the effects of contemporary practices of work on the self.

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An earlier generation of critical theorists, influenced by Marxism, regarded work and production as primary sites of social analysis and social change. The abiding influence of Marxist thought, and of Durkheim's, upon thinkers up until the last decades of the twentieth century ensured that the productive sphere was at least implicitly addressed in the attempts to understand social structure and character, and to proffer practical sources of social transformation. As Weber pointed out, the logic of industrial technology, production and social organization made possible the increasing rationalization of all spheres of human life. The processes of industrialism were abetted and legitimated by the dominant “modern” religion of the age. Mechanization, standardization and routinization in industrial production required comparable processes in the cultural sphere. Accordingly, the methodical, reliable, disciplined bourgeois citizen became the ideal industrial worker in a rational bureaucratized society.
Although none of these processes came about without contestation and disruption, the triumph of modern industrialism in the twentieth century seemed, to critical observers of the 1940s and 1950s, virtually complete. The influential Frankfurt School critical theorists, and their descendants, having witnessed the “technocratic rationality” of Nazism, the Soviet gulag and the atomic bomb, exaggerated Weber’s foreboding prognosis and despaired of all possibilities for social and psychic life. Repression and totalitarianism were the social products of modern industrial technocratic rationality that deadened the emancipatory hopes and visions of modernity’s espoused project. We have now been irrevocably affected by what Aronowitz (1981) neatly terms “the crisis in historical materialism.” That crisis, and that of modern thought more broadly, has triggered a reluctance to pursue analyses of sites we once believed harbored the seeds of social transformation. The failing efficacy of historical materialism to adequately interpret and effectively change the world prompted Marcuse’s pronouncement of the “integration of the working class” (Marcuse 1964) into the industrial capitalist apparatus. After the apparent confirmation of that view following the events in Paris in May, 1968, there began a search among critical intellectuals for sources of social transformation in sites other than production and by agents other than the working class. The abandonment of production and workers' movements as fruitful sites of social analysis and political action is now, by and large, taken for granted among contemporary social and cultural analysts. Production, it seems, was modernity’s concern. Nowadays, the cultural arena is the favored site for critical analyses.
Coinciding with these historical and academic events, technological and social developments were afoot in production and work that would launch a transformation of considerable magnitude in that domain by the end of the twentieth century. I address in this chapter the theoretical problematic of work during these transformations of modern industrial capitalism. I discuss the current neglect of work in critical social theory, since the post-19608 crisis in historical materialism, and I argue that the contemporary transformations occurring in that domain require renewed critical attention. In addition, I review briefly the discourses of occupation and solidarity which provide the conventional modern understandings of these categories as a preface to my later challenging of these modern categories in subsequent chapters. I conclude this chapter with a discussion on self and society.
For some readers already, or still, convinced of the importance of work, these discussions may seem superfluous and digressionary. However, as so much of the emphasis of critical theorizing is now on cultural phenomena, I feel I must argue the case for a renewed attention to work. I am wary of allegations of Marxist productionism, modern progressivism, or from the feminists, “masculinist” and essentialist convictions. But I argue that a critical social analysis of work, that is not a nostalgic reinvocation of modern radicalism and privileged subjectivity, opens possibilities for understanding self and social processes in post-industrial conditions that might otherwise be neglected. I am, simply, looking again at work as modern industrialism decays. Are embryonic patterns for social life after industrialism emerging there? It is premature and mistaken, notwithstanding the currently popular rejection of the grand modern theories and meta-narratives and the apparent failure of modernist radicalism, to reject the serious critical analysis of those old sites in favor of the brighter lights of postmodern signs. A renewed analysis of what happens to the person under new conditions of work (that includes permanent structural unemployment) advances our understanding of the self-society relation at the end of industrialism, and enables some informed imagining of social life beyond the industrial epoch.


The shift in emphasis to the cultural sphere among contemporary analysts was prompted in part by the early Frankfurt School’s effort to understand psychic and cultural processes in capitalist society. The Frankfurt thinkers' exploration of cultural and psychic phenomena emphasized the connections of these phenomena with capitalist social relations in the productive sphere. But the more recent emphasis in cultural studies, since the 1970s, has adopted an interpretation of the French “new philosophers” (Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Barthes) that not only recognizes the limits of modern totalistic theory but facilitates a departure from economic emphases altogether. The French philosophers' call for a “freedom from political forms of life”, a rejection of the “tyranny of reason” and a welcoming of what some (Lyotard 1984) called postmodern forms of life was intended to expose the totalism in modern thought and to seek ways to liberate the modern project from ossification by technocratic rationality. The French theorists' rejection of modern grand narratives and universal categories for their tendency to become totalistic, dominating social and psychic practices inspired a focus among their followers on the fragmented, the immediate, the marginal and the subjective. The playful jouissance, discontinuity and micro-contextuality of postmodern thought have captured the imagination of a new generation of thinkers in the academy. Analyses of diverse subjectivities, sexuality and cultural phenomena — television, film, advertising, “style,” and theory itself — are now popular arenas in critical theoretical debate.
However, for many of this generation of thinkers, the attraction to the spectacle of postmodern impulses and manifestations has frequently rendered the neglect of postmodernism’s serious challenges, that the French thinkers offered, through disruption, disjuncture and disunity, to modernism. The possibilities for renewed social analyses and counter-practices beyond the personal and the particular are seldom sought in most contemporary critical theorizing. By the 1990s this neglect has left the world of work and associated social relations largely the monopoly of traditional economic, management and labor relations analysts, few of whom are equipped or oriented to critically, socially analyze the transformation of production practices and to read their broader implications for self and social life.
Of course sociologists continue to study work and there are some welcome recent efforts, notably the collections by Pahl (1988) and Eriksen and Vallas (1990) that address the transformation of work practices as well as more conventional work related topics. But efforts to critically analyze broader social implications associated with these developments are rare (Offe 1992). In the traditional disciplines postmodern ideas and approaches are often rejected outright and conventional methods and analytical categories reinvoked. It is neither critical theorists nor sociologists of work who are producing the provocative new readers about work and society. Rather it is the business analysts such as Drucker (1993), Reich (1991), and Handy (1989, 1990) whose works are found in the world’s libraries, airport bookstores, and liberal arts and commerce curricula, and whose authoritative words are freely quoted in university graduation speeches.
The focus on the cultural sphere in recent decades, although initially sparked by the crisis in historical materialism that the New Left experienced in the 1970s and fueled by the actual rise in importance in significatory practices (as Baudrillard describes the post-industrial condition), has been facilitated by developments in literary theory, particularly post-structuralism, deconstruction, and feminism. These developments have enabled attention to cultural practices, especially language and other symbolic rituals, to be conducted in abstraction from the former modernist attachment to social or economic practices. Among the insights gained from such attention is Jean Baudrillard’s notion that, the “social” has been absorbed by the cultural, and “there is no longer any social signified to give force to a political signifier” (Baudrillard 1983: 19). Again, although Baudrillard was indicating the new importance of signfication and symbolic production as a post-industrial condition that departs from the primacy of materiality, his ideas were interpreted by many cultural analysts to mean that production and materiality are no longer important. Baudrillard added that the death of the social is also that of theory, a view that although not broadly taken up, gave license to some who would propose that theorizing is a masculinist endeavor (Marks and de Courtivron 1981) that feminists, apparently, should abandon.
Baudrillard’s (1988) view of the present post-industrial condition is that it is a consumer culture, in which we consume no longer products but signs — the signs of advertisements, of television, of the material product, and of promised libidinal gratification. The symbols of those products become objects of consumption themselves and have value for us. The “triumph of consumption” in the present era is the reification of the sign, as itself a commodity, that represents the displacement of beings and things by symbols and signs. This, for Baudrillard, is the post-industrial condition. Many social theorists now argue (Baudrillard 1983, Finlay-Pelinski 1987, Habermas 1987, Harvey 1989, Kroker and Cook 1986, Luke 1991, Wexler, 1987) that we are at an historical moment when significatory or knowledge processes are of crucial importance and the dominant conditions of production have become discursive. Further, according to Baudrillard, domination (of the masses) is effected through discourse — through communications in the sphere of production. Workers are consumers and producers of that discourse, and in Baudrillard’s view, now fully integrated into the processes of domination through an implosion of the old meanings of “signifier and signified,” subject and object, producer and consumer. In his view, there is not much prospect for meaningful collective practice, because such referents are imploded, and the condition is now one of hyper, simulated reality, that cannot be “known” outside itself.
If we are looking for transformative, collective practices in work of the type once envisaged by critical intellectuals and modern radicals then indeed Baudrillard and Marcuse are likely to be right. The integration and domination of “the masses” is well in place and sites of production are unlikely arenas for social and cultural transformation. But that does not relegate all activities of work to an archeology of industrialism. Self constituent events and processes occur in everyday practices of work which in turn affect the social relations and organizational practices of society. Although Baudrillard eschews the idea of social practices as a separate domain his analysis is a useful one. It points again to the importance of the sphere of production (albeit symbolic) and consumption for the constitution of individual and collective identity. It exposes the practice of new, disguised, forms of domination through the discourses of new production practices. Others, including Finlay-Pelinski (1982, 1987) and Wexler (1987), similarly stress the importance of significatory and information production processes. Their approaches direct attention to what I call “discursive practices of work” in addition to physical practices of work. By “discursive practices of work” I am referring to communica-tional and symbolic relations in production and work organization that include organizational cultural programs and the psychodynamics of the workplace. I argue that a focus on symbolic practices that are linked with material social practices, enables a renewed analysis of the practices of work and may illuminate new understandings of self-formation processes.
The postmodern attempt to avoid the essentialism and progressivism inherent in the categories of modern social theories favors an approach to social analysis that celebrates the “free play of signifiers without reference,” the blurring of boundaries and the fragmentation of former universal categories. The new emphases and insights enabled by Baudrillard’s and others' observations of the disintegration of separate domains and the primacy of signs and images in postmodern conditions that have absorbed social life into a commodified culture are vital challenges to modern thought and analytical methods. Yet that welcome effort is often coupled with the rejection of the modern privileging of economic analyses and has resulted in a dismissal of many of the institutions of modern industrial society and sites of modern social analysis, including work, as irrelevant in contemporary postmodern conditions. The flight into cultural studies as the current arena for postmodern “social” analyses is, for many, a defense against the confusion and dislocation of modern industrialism’s demise and the dissolution of the programmatic certainty of Marxist social analysis. This is manifested in the new privileging of micro-contextual cultural phenomena, marginality, fragmentation and diffusion.
I wish to turn away again from culture, or at least from its privileging, and return the social to critical theory. The institutional practices in everyday life in this postmodern juncture continue to affect the constitution of individual and collective identity. Production endures. But rather than reviving a conventional modern social analysis which necessarily privileges the material social relations of work, I recognize that work is both a social practice and a cultural practice. The discursive practices of work are constituent processes of self formation which occur through the everyday, institutional experience of work. My return to the materiality of production, as it is experienced by workers, this time encompasses the discursive and cultural dimensions of work practices. Self-constituent processes other than those of work are implicitly recognized but they are not the focus of this particular gaze and study at this particular time. The approach, summarily, is that the social structures and discursive practices of production and consumption are discursive constituents of contemporary western selves.


Within critical social theory today fierce struggles are occurring over the nature of theory, discourse, subjectivity, knowledge and politics, a condition, in large part, bequeathed by the prolonged crisis in historical materialism, the rise of French post-structuralist theory and of cultural studies and feminism. There have been, of course, good reasons to doubt the validity and universal relevance of Marxist theory in view of the lived experience of western history over about the last fifty years, especially after the events in Europe in 1968, and more recently in Soviet Europe since 1989. The crises in modern thought and in historical materialism in particular concern intellectuals of various persuasions. The triumph of capitalism as a mode of production and a social system is hailed by some as the “end of history” (Fukuyama 1989) or the “end of ideology” (Bell 1988). Some have reinvoked classical Marxist positions (Aglietta 1979, Braverman 1974, Lefebvre 1976, Mandel 1978, Offe 1985, O’Connor 1973, Poulantzas 1975). Others have begun a process of rethinking the old tradition, retaining or rejecting, variously and uncertainly, some of its categories (Anderson 1976, Aronowitz 1985, Gouldner 1970, Harvey 1989, Kellner 1989, Laclau and Mouffe 1985, 1987, Lash and Urry 1987, Smart 1992).
The emergence of the French philosophers and the timely influence of their work after the 1960s has influenced a new generation of critical analysts many of whom reject the old masters altogether in despair of their totalizing discourses or their embedded patriarchicalism.1 The Enlightenment-inspired project of modernity is now trenchantly criticized and its validity questioned. Modernity’s primary monolithic categories of Reason, Truth, Science, the idea of progress and the centrality of the human subject are variously rejected or challenged. The rejection of Hegelian historicism and the insistence on “the base,” in which production is accorded primacy in shaping human social, cultural and political development is commonly accepted. Most of the new cultural analysts concentrate on what classical Marxist theory called the “superstructure” – the cultural sphere, where language, knowledge, meanings and identities are formed.
The French philosophers, adapting concepts from literary theory on deconstruction and representation, developed a post-structuralist theory of subjectivity. They rejected bourgeois humanism in which the conscious human subject is regarded as the agent of history by decentering the human subject into a dispersion of arbitrary reference points. They viewed history as discontinuous and fragmented rather than as a longitudinal totality. They argued for a suspension and interrogation of unities and for a recognition of the specificity of phenomena, and of “subjugated knowledges” (Foucault 1972). Michel Foucault excavated what he identified as the “power/knowledge episteme” of the modern era in which the power relations, structures and institutions of modern industrial society produce the “configuration of knowledge forms” of contemporary life. These knowledge forms operate through discourses that reproduce, legitimate and render invisible their dominance. Persons and political possibilities are positioned by discourses and their domination is obscured by the “system of right and truth” established as knowledge throughout western history.
Foucault’s theory of power represented a paradigmatic departure from the classical Marxist and Freudian understandings of power, in which power was viewed respectively as primarily located in the economic base and as repression. Foucault viewed the individual as constituted by power, and the relations of power cannot be “established, consolidated nor implemented without the production 
 and functioning of a discourse” (Foucault 1980: 93). The primary site of operation of power is the human body, which, for Foucault, is a priori to the concept of self. From the moment of birth the human body is shaped, subjugated and disciplined. The individual’s sense of self is acquired through the experience of power relations in which it is immersed. The project of self creation and self care is enunciated within those discourses of power. Foucault conceived of power as a multiplicity of “networks” that operate spatially and discursively. This notion directed attention to multiplicities of power relations, subjectivities, and sites of practice, and away from the emphases of structural analyses on the primacy of the productive sphere.
The postmodern turn inspired by the French new philosophers has had a profound impact on contemporary social theory. Many contemporary theorists see new arenas for theorizing and action in the move away from humanism and from structuralism. For some, following Foucault, the effort is to retrieve that which was left out of the totalizing discourses of modern thought, and attention is focused on the marginal and the subjugated.2 Earlier critical theory sought to conceive of societal construction as a composite of psychological, cultural and economic activities — not as primarily (although ultimately) determined by the base (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972, Marcuse 1964). Post-structuralism go...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Full Title
  4. Copyright
  6. Dedication
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. Introduction
  16. Appendix: The field study
  17. Notes
  18. Bibliography
  19. Index