Vol 5 No 4 Winter 2022

The Politics of Lean Production

Lean production is a daily reality for tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of workers around the globe. Originally known as the Toyota Production System, lean management spread from Japan in the 1980s and had diffused across the global auto industry by the end of the 2000s.1 Today, lean management has been adopted in some form by nearly every manufacturing concern in North America and Western Europe, and it is increasingly spreading to other sectors, from health care to civil service to education.2

The rise of lean management has taken place within a broader transformation of Western capitalism since the 1970s, including internationalization, deindustrialization, and financialization, alongside the rising hegemony of the neoliberal political project. A core factor driving this transformation has been class struggle: in response to declining profit rates, American capital took the lead in the Western world, launching a multipronged assault on labor via anti-unionism, whipsawing, concession bargaining, outsourcing, internationalization, and marketization.3 The outcomes are by now well-known: wage stagnation, rising inequality, increasing labor market insecurity, and widespread work intensification.

Many on the Left see lean management as an inherently capitalist management system that necessarily increases management control, undermines unions, and is the primary cause of work intensification. This view has been articulated in this journal by distinguished labor activist-scholars Mike Parker and Kim Moody, who champion the view from the radical wing of the labor movement.4 The theoretical foundation of this position is the neo-Marxist theory of management, which holds, in the words of Michael Yates, that “the essence of capitalist management is control: control over the labor process and therefore control over the worker.”5

But there is a persistent opinion that lean production offers a genuine opportunity for workers to gain some control over the labor process and share power with management. Joshua Murray and Michael Schwartz have articulated such a view in this journal, but with a novel twist: they suggest the American auto industry resisted adopting “flexible production” because the latter requires that management share power with labor.6 In this neo-Marxist analysis, the long decline of the American auto industry is a result of American executives sacrificing flexibility and efficiency to maintain control and power.

Neo-Marxism has made and continues to make enduring contributions to our understanding of labor management, labor markets, and labor politics. The contributions of Harry Braverman, David Gordon, Richard Edwards, and David Noble are foundational, including many innovative and compelling contributions that cannot be discussed here.7 This body of work remains original, insightful, and essential. I criticize two theses from this school of thought: that management concerns with control generally override concerns with efficiency or profit; and that capitalist relations of production warp the trajectory of technical change in service of management control. The question at hand is whether lean production is inherently about increasing management control and intensifying labor, or whether it is a general management system compatible with worker empowerment, strong unions, and worker control.

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