Control changes

Issue section: 

It was good to see the engagement in the letters pages of last month’s Socialist Review to my and Andy Ridley’s article about the turmoil in the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) which has followed from discontent over this year’s NHS pay deal (“A right royal crisis prods dormant unions to life”, November SR).

Thanks to Pete Sinclair for his clarifications and insights about the limitations of the deal and to Dave Lyddon for his informative comments about the historical evolution of the RCN.

However, I must take strong issue with the arguments put forward by Susan Rosenthal. Susan insists that nurses, alongside teachers, social workers and other “salaried professionals” are middle class rather than workers.

If Susan is right then the analysis put forward by the SWP for the last 40 years is mistaken. Such layers, which have significantly expanded in the last decades, have not been proletarianised and the working class is shrinking, at least in the advanced industrial countries, contrary to the arguments we have put forward.

Susan gives two main reasons for her argument (whether an employee is “salaried” or paid a wage once a month or even once a week is an irrelevance to their objective class position).

Firstly, Susan states that occupations that require a degree cannot be working class (nursing, as we pointed out, is now an all-graduate profession).

Secondly, Susan argues occupations where there is a degree of discretionary power over your work and which confer the authority to make decisions that affect other people’s lives must be excluded from the working class.

Yet what Susan seems to miss is the huge transformation that has taken place in professional and white collar work more generally over the whole post-war period. Capitalism has required ever larger numbers of administrative and other office staff both in private firms and in the public state sector.

As such white collar jobs have expanded so they have become subject to much greater managerial control from above as capital seeks to pump the maximum surplus value out of them just as it does manual workers.

Increasingly too such workers have found themselves tied to ever greater levels of technology to increase their productivity — the introduction of computers, for example — which allow for increased monitoring and surveillance of their labour.

This has required new skills and often increased time spent in education. A more skilled and more educated working class also requires more teachers and more health workers to patch them up and ensure a return on the expenditures on their education

Yet such trends have also been combined with the erosion of autonomy among large numbers of those once considered professionals over how their labour is performed. So teaching, for example, has seen massive increases in control from above with the introduction of a national curriculum, the introduction of repeated testing with results determining a school’s place in a public “league table” and a highly intrusive and high stakes inspection regime through Ofsted.

This has led to the massive intensification of work that we alluded to in our article — with teachers and nurses suffering, involuntarily, the greatest such work intensification. Far from exercising autonomy, managerial prerogatives have grown sharply.

Such changes are not simply quantitative but qualitative, amounting to the proletarianisation of swathes of professional and white collar jobs.

Of course many workers do exercise some degree of delegated authority on behalf of their employer but this does not alter the fact of a fundamental lack of control over the means of making a livelihood. This combined with the massive increases in pressures at work, increased work pace and workloads and increased subjection to supervisory control and managerial discipline to enforce this are precisely what has forced groups of workers such as teachers, nurses, hospital admin staff, social workers, local government workers, lectures in further and higher education to collectively organise to defend their conditions and pay.

The picture Susan paints is a snapshot from past conditions long since eradicated by the dynamic of capitalism itself.