January 01, 2023

Emerging Conflicts in Capital’s Control on Labour

Sanjay Roy

CONTROL on the labour process has been the key to capital relations. It is important because the origin and reproduction of capital relations depends on the alienation of labour from the process of production. One of the important means to exercise control by capital over labour is to separate the mental and physical labour through a hierarchical structure. It is meant for a division of labour which is curated to distinguish people who would be thinking and those who would be mindlessly executing instructions given by planners within the factory. This suits capital relations because the division itself helps exercising control over the labour process. A handful of supervisors, managers, technocrats who will plan and decide while an army of labour will implement the minute details of realising the plan is the layout of a typical production structure dominant in the twentieth century. This was Taylorism and Fordism deployed by the capitalist class to reduce the autonomy of artisanal labour who used to have greater control over the labour process because the mental and physical labour was not so separated in the artisanal guilds.

Capitalism had to destroy this structure in order to create a production process where minute details of division of labour would actually reduce the control of workers on the entire production process. More importantly it was what Marx called the ‘real subsumption of labour’ that is instituting a production process which is capitalist in all its presuppositions. This is different from the phase of formal subsumption that is only exercising control over pre-capitalist structures the way merchant capital exercised control over artisans and small producers in the early phase of capitalism. Through manufacture, capitalism created its own production structure, a division of labour within the factory that reproduces the alienation of labour from the production process in every stage and in every moment.


These concrete developments of production in the form of detailed division of labour entail a process of deskilling which reduces the autonomy of individual labour. This is usually referred to as the process of proletarianisation. Hence the factory, the assembly line, hierarchical division of labour and most importantly separating mental and physical labour was meant to weaken working class agency against capital. But the workers responded to this move through recomposing themselves giving rise to an identity of the ‘collective labour’ or a class. Reuniting within the shop floor and the struggle for economy wide greater share of the produced value, ‘fair wage,’ collective bargaining, trade union institutions are the results of a ‘social compact’ between the capitalist and the working class, articulated in the Fordist-Keynesian welfare regimes. It was conditioned by the fear of the rising attraction of the working people of the world towards socialist politics and existing socialist countries. The rise of the ‘collective labour’ was so resounding that all political combinations of the twentieth century had to address the labouring class as they constituted the most important contingent of mass opinion.

With the use of information technology, the coordination cost of production drastically declined. As a result, the division of labour and the separation of mental and physical labour in the production process could spread across the globe. Neoliberalism sustains on the basis of labour arbitrage within and across countries taking advantage of differentiated and fragmented labour and by creating fresh release of assets through establishing property rights on commons and natural resources. Global off-shoring and out-sourcing is the vehicle of new imperialism through which capital sucks surplus value from every pore and corner of the world. Technology of the North combined with the cheap labour and natural resources of the South constitutes the neoliberal empire of capital. This is the new international division of labour where North supplies technology and knowledge and the South emerges to be the suppliers of labour and natural resources.

Knowledge which is largely propertied through patents, royalties and various other intellectual property rights is mostly anchored in the global North, while global capital gets access to cheap labour of the South easily due to liberalised regimes. Hence, capital involved in the production and appropriation of knowledge receives a greater share in the global value chain while simple and replaceable labour mostly located in the South performing manufacturing activities receive the lowest share in the global value added. Hence imperialism not only accentuates the division of labour between mental and physical labour in the neoliberal regime but also creates conducive architecture of institutions that protect the rights of the rich countries over knowledge while opening up the huge repository of cheap labour and natural resources of the global South to the MNCs.


Despite the broad division that evolved between the ‘headquarters’ and ‘factories’ of the world, new production processes emerging within capitalism create trends that are contradictory in nature. Deskilling of the labour and separating activities relating to planning and decisions from that of following instructions had been the usual mode of control structure in capitalist production process. This had been supported by a continuous process of technological development particularly related to machines that objectified knowledge of living labour into dead labour. This process enables further control by capital because the collective knowledge embodied in machines is owned by capital and the living labour added to it requires less skill and hence easily replaceable. This is the process by which capital attained control over production and at the same time created proletariats who are easily disposable or replaceable by capital.

However, there have always been contradictory trends emerging within the system, meaning deskilling in one segment of production is coupled with reskilling in some other segments of the economy. Skilled workers individually enjoy greater agency because they possess tacit knowledge which cannot be separated from the brains of workers and so long the skills are not being codified or converted into standardised machine codes, the worker possesses greater negotiating power vis-à-vis capital. Capitalists always favour technologies that make labour easily replaceable and with this view science and technologies are deployed in every segment of production to reduce the autonomy of the worker. The problem however is not with the technology per se, but its orientation and drive under capital’s control.

Production in the twenty-first century is distinct from the mass production of the twentieth century because of at least one feature that assumes critical importance in today’s goods or services. It involves customisation articulated through adding both some ‘information’ and ‘cultural’ content to the output. Goods purchased are not only defined by their uses alone, but within them carry some ideational content through packaging or presentation reflecting some image, life styles, emotions or feelings. This distinctive feature is added through keeping continuous track of changing tastes and preferences of consumers by analysing them and providing feedback to producers for necessary response. Be it physical market or digital platforms, goods and services are endowed with information and cultural content that is being produced by immaterial labour. Hierarchies exist within this realm of immaterial labour as well. It includes highly skilled workers involved in designing or programming, creative workers or affective labour caring for feelings, passions, images and so on while we see proletariats of the new production structure involved in care work or gig work at the end of the service value chain.

Capital in any way would be putting lot of resources to standardise and codify the knowledge so far being embodied in human brains and transfer them to machines or systems that would tend to make erstwhile skilled workers replaceable. This is essentially a continuous race in which capital deploys science and technology in standardising and objectifying human labour for the sake of greater control over the production process.

But as production increasingly involves more ideational content into it, capital requires more and more control over the minds and thought processes of humans. Such trends are already visible when global tech giants are aiming to establish property rights on enormous data generated by the consumers of the world through innumerable transactions in digital markets and social media interactions. Tech giants in fact procure huge flow of information without any cost. More the ideational content become significant attributes of goods and services, the more it becomes difficult and costly separating mental and physical labour. This contradictory trend prompts capital in establishing control over worldwide information flows and ideas, not only to produce according to the choices of consumers, but to also construct their future choices itself.