For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Power and Subjectivity at Work: From Degradation to Subjugation in Social Relations"

by Knights, David; Willmott, Hugh (1989)


The paper presents a critical exploration of the treatment of subjectivity and power in sociology through an examination of recent developments in labour process theory. This is introduced through a discussion of dualism and the study of power. It is then argued that the exposure of the neglect of subjectivity in the response to Labour and Monopoly Capital has not been matched by effort to remedy this deficiency. Originating in Marx, the intellectual history of this neglect is explored through a review of key contributions to the post-Braverman literature. Our argument draws upon the work of Foucault to suggest a more adequate appreciation of processes of subjugation in which subjectivity is fetishised in identity. This thesis is articulated and illustrated through a critique of the influential empirical studies of Burawoy and Cockburn.

Key Passage

Whereas Marxists concentrate on the exploitation of labour through capital's appropriation of surplus value, and feminists are concerned with the domination of women through patriarchal legacies, Foucaulťs analysis complements and qualifies these perspectives by focusing upon power-infused processes of subjugation. Contrasting it with previous forms of power - such as domination where groups were subordinated by virtue of their race or ethnicity, and exploitation where labour is deprived of the full return on its production - subjugation is seen as more economical in as much as it is a technique of the 'social' and of the 'self' which produces a self -disciplining subjectivity. In effect, modern technologies of power subjugate by forcing individuals back in on themselves so that they become 'tied to (their) own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge' (Foucault 1982:212). Although he is never so explicit, we would not see it as a misreading to suggest that subjugation occurs where the freedom of a subject is directed narrowly, and in a self-disciplined fashion, towards participation in practices which are known or understood to provide the individual with a sense of security and belonging. In short, it is the comparative social isolation which subjects suffer as a result of the individualising impact of modern power that renders individuals vulnerable to precisely the demands or expectations that such power makes of them. It is in this sense that who and what we are (i.e. our social identity) is confirmed and sustained through our positioning in practices which reflect and reproduce prevailing power-knowledge relations. According to Foucault, these power- knowledge relations are both technological and economical. Technological in so far as they are exercised in and through specific knowledges of bodies (e.g. medicine, psychoanalysis) and populations (e.g. demography, social statistics); and economical in that their effect is to infiltrate the mind or soul so as to constitute bodies as subjects who discipline them/ourselves. In this way, Foucaulťs analysis forges a critical link between the constitution of subjects and the objectification, subjectivisation and ultimately subjugation of human beings through specific knowledges (e.g. the biological, medical, demographic, psychological and social sciences). (p.550)


Foucault, Subjectivity, Power, Degredation, Social Relations, Labour Process Theory, Sociology, Monopoly Capital


On Foucault, Foucault, Critical Management Studies, Organisation and Management Studies

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