You are on page 1of 25

Post-Fordism and

the Flexibility
Debate
MARTHA MACDONALD

ike the ubiquitous prefix "post," "flexibility" has become a common buzzword of the 1980s in a wide
variety of academic writing. The two are in fact often
connected, for the essence of this "post" period - whether
postmodern, post-fordist, or post-industrial - is said to be
flexibility - flexible specialization, flexible accumulation,'
flexible firm, labour market flexibility, the "Age of
Flexibility." Essentially, the debate surrounding post-fordism/flexibility has to do with the way firms, industries
and indeed national economies and world capitalism are
restructuring in this era of technological change, heightened
international competition and rapidly changing markets.
Whereas the post-war period is characterized as one of mass
production/consumption, planning, control and stability, the
current age, it is argued, requires flexibility and rapid
response to change by capital, and hence by labour. The
debate is about the extent and nature of these changed conditions, how we can understand these processes, and what
the implications are for political strategy.
Post-fordism, like postmodernism, is grounded in the
sense of dislocation and unease brought about by the rapid
changes in the world order since the early 1970s. In scholarly work in political economy there has been a rush to interpret these developments, and an eagerness to declare a
"new era," one which supersedes the extended post-war
boom. While the left has flirted with both postmodernism
and post-fordism, each approach has critically challenged
some aspects of left analysis and political strategy and each
has been developed to a large extent by those working in
Studies in Political Economy 36, Fall 1991

177

Studies in Political Economy

other social science paradigms. The language used is of


dramatic reversals in business as usual, captured in words
like restructuring, deindustrialization, and globalization.
The literature is wide ranging - from overarching theories
of the new regime of accumulation- to case studies of particular firms and their labour reorganization in the 1980s.
All aspects of the economy are under scrutiny - industrial
organization, labour relations, international financial
markets, state involvement in the economy. The debate has
been taken up by the left and the right; by institutional
social scientists and marxists; by industrial relations students and business school professors; by academics writing
in many languages and in different countries.
My purpose in this review is to examine the implications
of the post-fordism and flexibility debates for political
economy. What insights do they hold and what pitfalls do
they reveal? How useful are they in enhancing our way of
understanding the world, our concrete knowledge of that
world, and our ability to shape it? Some see the whole
project as reactionary and antithetical to a marxist analysis,
while other political economists are in the very centre of
the fray.
It is difficult to study a process as it unfolds and we are
not yet at the point where history can settle the debates.
What we can evaluate is whether the discussion has been
fruitful in intellectual and practical terms.
Different Literatures There are at least three broad fields
within political economy which have been heavily engaged
in some sort of flexibility debate, and among these there
have been uneven degrees of communication and cross-fertilization. These fields are geography, crisis theory/international capitalism, and labour process/labour studies. This
section briefly describes the literature on post-fordism/
flexibility in each of these fields, emphasizing the diversity
of approaches to the issue. The next section highlights the
major issues under debate and offers a critique of the literature.

178

MacDonaldlFlex

Spec Debates

Labour Literature In both the labour process and labour


market segmentation literature in the 1980s increasing attention was paid to "restructuring" and the search for
"flexibility." In many respects these discussions were simply
a continuation of ongoing themes; however, there was a
gradual change in tone from one of understanding stable
processes to grappling with changes. The labour literature
also incorporated themes raised in other fields. In English
speaking countries, the two works most responsible for setting the tone of the discussion in the labour literature were
Michael Piore and Charles Sabel's The Second Industrial
Divide and the work of John Atkinson, at the Institute for
Manpower Studies in England.2
Piore and Sabel coined the term "flexible specialization"
to describe a system which they wished to distinguish from
"mass production." Mass production is described as a system focused on stabilizing and controlling markets and supplies, and minimizing uncertainty and change. At the firm
level mass production meant the large batch production of
standardized commodities, using dedicated machinery and
a detailed division of labour. This is contrasted with flexible
specialization, a system focused on permanent innovation
and "accommodation to ceaseless change rather than an effort to control it."3 Flexible specialization entails adaptability. For Piore and Sabel the key element in the success
of such strategy is the ability of the firm to rely on multi-use
machines and to draw on a pool of workers with general
skills. They emphasize the importance of political factors
in determining which way companies and industries adapt
to the crisis - either by flexible specialization or a revival
of mass production. Flexible specialization is seen to require
a new institutional framework, covering a broad range of
areas from labour relations to national industrial policy.
Without changes in these areas, the potential of the new
age to mutually benefit firms, workers and nations will not
be realized.
From the point of view of jobs and the labour process,
flexible specialization held out a promise of more holistic

jobs, a reversal of the increasingly detailed division of


labour - in short, the promise of more satisfying, rewarding
179

Studies in Political Economy

work for more people than existed under mass production.


This prediction flew in the face of the labour process literature, which emphasized the struggle between capital and
labour in the workplace and the continual threat of the
"degradation of work" and deskilling of labour.f
Piore and Sabel were writing from an institutional tradition, not a marxist one, and so the hostility the book engendered on the left is not surprising. Their story is driven
by technology and market demand; they portray society as
facing choices, ones which are susceptible of rational evaluation. To a marxist, the exercise appears totally idealistic,
ignoring the fundamental class dynamics of capitalism.
Piore and Sabel are also criticized for down-playing the
issue of the distribution of costs and benefits of the new
system. Yet despite these criticisms the book has held remarkable sway; paper after paper sets it up as the null hypothesis.
Atkinson's work plays a similar role in the British and
European literature. Atkinson focused on the firm rather
than the system of production, and coined the model of the
flexible firm - the firm that could respond quickly to the
rapid changes in the international marketplace and in technology. This firm achieves flexibility on three dimensions
in relation to labour costs: through "functional" flexibility,
the ability to redeploy labour within the firm, requiring
multi-skilled workers; "numerical" flexibility, the ability to
easily alter the size of the workforce by methods such as
part-time work,lack of job security provisions, subcontracting,
and other forms of nonstandard employment; and "financial"
or "pay" flexibility, the ability to make wages more flexible
by mechanisms such as wage concessions, two-tiered wage
systems, or pay for performance.
These three kinds of flexibility may be contradictory.
Workers generally will not be functionally flexible and supportive of the firm's goals if they have no job security and
are poorly paid. According to Atkinson the flexible firm
could attempt to solve this problem by developing a core
of stable, functionally flexible workers and could then prac-

tice numerical and pay flexibility through the use of a


peripheral group of workers. Essentially his model predicted
180

MacDonald/Flex

Spec Debates

segmentation within the firm. Atkinson's articles generated


heated debate in Britain on the left - more so because
Atkinson himself identified with the left and some of his
writing appeared in Marxism Today. The issues discussed
included whether there was evidence that this flexible firm
in fact existed, and, if so, whether its existence should be
lauded or deplored.
Since Piore and Sabel's and Atkinson's work first appeared, there has been heated debate in the labour literature
about what forms labour flexibility may have currently assumed, and whether this is good or bad from the point of
view of labour. Case studies at the firm and industry level
have examined how firms are actually restructuring their
labour processes. The positive and negative versions of
flexibility are explored, both theoretically and empirically.t
In all this the labour process literature has remained extremely critical of the flexibility thesis, as has much of the
labour market segmentation Iiterature.f
There is also concern manifested in the labour literature
that too much emphasis is being placed on labour as the
key to flexibility. If firms do indeed need to be more adaptable,
and if technology now allows and necessitates innovations
in production and distribution, there are other strategies to
achieve this. Strategies focused on production and distribution have different implications for the labour process and
employment practices. There is some confusion between the
labour-focused strategies and the derived implications for
labour of other corporate strategies. Considerations such as
these have led writers in the labour field to become more
interested in issues of industrial organization, geographic
location, and the international restructuring of industries and
economies. After all, labour is a derived demand. These
other fields in political economy have themselves engaged
in the flexibility/post-fordism debate.
Crisis Theory Whereas the buzzword "flexibility" had its
origins in the labour literature, the term "post-fordism"
originated in discussions of the overall crisis of capitalism
and the process of restructuring in the 1970s. There was a
great revival of "crisis theory" and interest in the possibility
181

Studies in Political Economy

of a major watershed in capitalism, building on a tradition


of periodizing capitalist development} In the "crisis" literature, the term fordism is used to describe the overall character of the capitalist world order from the 1920s to the
1970s. Essentially the fordist period is seen as the era of
the dominance of mass production (economies of scale, assembly-line production, detailed division of labour, separation of execution and control at the level of the workplace),
balanced by high levels of mass consumption maintained
by institutional supports which included Keynesian demand
policies, and an accord between business and labour. The
crisis of fordism in the 1970s led to a new era, the current
era, which is termed post-fordist.
The French "regulation school" led the way in interpreting the crisis as marking the transition from one capitalist
epoch to another, or to use their terminology, from one
regime of accumulation to another. Michel Aglietta, in A
Theory of Capitalist Regulation, argued that the fordist
regime of intensive accumulation was established in the
crisis of the great depression, and in the 1970s was beset
by its own crisis - a crisis both in the production and
realization of surplus value. Aglietta explicitly focused on
the US experience. Writing in 1976, he dealt tentatively
with the new regime, and used the term "neo-fordism" rather
than "post-fordism." This choice of terminology emphasized
his sense of the continuity of underlying capitalist relations,
even though the manifestations of those relations might
change to meet the requirements of capital accumulation
under new conditions. While Aglietta used the term "neofordism" to describe what might succeed fordism, in the
ensuing debate post-fordism has become the more favoured
term, and discontinuity has become the dominant theme.f
Daniel Leborgne and Alain Lipietz'' sum up the French
regulation approach, characterizing historical patterns of
development as having a technological paradigm (the
general principles which govern the evolution of the organization of labour), a regime of accumulation (the macroeconomic principle which balances production and consumption), and a mode of regulation (cultural and institutional arrangements which support the regime of accumula182

MacDonaldlFlex

Spec Debates

tion). Under fordism, the technological paradigm included


standardization of products and procedures and Taylorist
principles of the separation of conception and execution,
which led to rapid and prolonged increases in productivity.
The regime of accumulation under fordism was characterized by a growth in mass consumption to balance the
growth in mass production (aided by the growth of the
public sector and non-productive workers). The mode of
regulation included the institutional support of collective
bargaining, the hegemony of large companies, and the massive role of the Keynesian state in maintaining demand.
Post-fordism in this literature is the antithesis of these
characteristics. Articles often include summary tables contrasting fordist and post-fordist characteristics on dimensions such as the production process (mass versus batch
production, economies of scale versus economies of scope),
the labour process (single task versus multiple tasks, vertical
versus horizontal organization), spatial implications (concentration versus dispersal of industry), corporate structure
(vertical integration versus network firms), consumption (mass
versus specialized/individualized) and the state (regulation
versus deregulation, centralization versus decentralization).
While there is debate on the post-fordist configuration, there
is a common conviction that a new regime of accumulation
and a different mode of regulation, which will stabilize the
next round of capital accumulation on both a national and
international scale, are being established.
Marxist Geography Some of the most interesting work on
restructuring and post-fordism has been done by geographers in the UK, Europe and the US. Much of the concern
during the crisis of the last two decades has been with the
shifting geography of capitalism. Of note are the works of
Doreen Massey, David Harvey and his former colleagues
at Johns Hopkins, and Allen Scott and Michael Storper in
the United States.l? Urban and regional planning scholars
have also contributed to this literature on deindustrialization,
reindustrialization, and the spatial implications of restructuring.I! These writers, focusing on the crucial variable of
space, provide a new dimension to the analysis. Space is
183

Studies in Political Economy

important on a number of levels - in terms of analyzing


global shifts in the capitalist centre, and in the consideration
of economies of scope and the operation of network firms.
David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodemity integrates
the space/time dimension into the crisis theory/regulationist
approach to post-fordism.R A recent book by Storper and
Walker has the ambitious objective of showing that "political economic processes in general are profoundly shaped
by their geography"13 and trying to build a geography of
capitalism. It is an example of one of the overarching attempts at a theoretical analysis that can incorporate, indeed
predict, the kinds of shifts that are loosely characterized
by post-fordism.
Harvey and Storper and Walker are right that the space/
time dimension has been neglected, not only in mainstream
social science, but also in political economy. The importance
of these factors is blatantly obvious in the current technological age and can no longer be ignored. The insights
of the geographers have provided important input into the
labour literature. Instead of beginning with the question of
what type of job/labour process exists, the prior question
of where jobs will be located becomes the focus. Geographers thus draw attention to the location dimension of
industrial organization.
Leborgne and Lipietz' contribution to an important collection of articles, mainly by geographers, provides an example of cross-fertilization of approaches from the labour,
regulation, and geography literatures. They take three labour
reorganization scenarios from the labour process literature
(called the neo-Taylorist, Californian and saturnian way),
relate them to scenarios from the industrial organization!
new technology literature (the specialized firm, the network
of specialized firms, and vertical quasi-integration) and then
derive possible spatial forms. They discuss "territorially disintegrated vertical quasi-integration," for example, which
leads to a specialized productive area like Southeast Asia,
as opposed to traditional vertical integration which leads
to the proliferation of branch plants in diverse locations.

'They show how this might be combined with a neo- TayloIist


labour model, creating a more polarized world, with marked
184

MacDonaldlFlex

Spec Debates

interregional and intraregional specialization. They argue


that the Californian model tends to be consistent with vertical disintegration and a territorial concentration into local
productive systems (similar to the Third Italy, for example).
The saturnian way, with collective involvement of workers
and negotiation, can lead to what they call a system area,
where "vertical quasi-integration takes the form of a territorially integrated, diversified, multisectoral network of
specialized firms and principal firms."14 They argue that
the saturnian model of collective worker participation can
be taken to a system level through collective social consent
and the rejection of dualism. Leborgne and Lipietz explicitly
argue that though the new technologies induce specialized
firms and vertical quasi-integration, this can be realized
through either territorial integration or disintegration, and
through a variety of forms of labour relations.
Issues in the Literature Despite the many literatures where
post-fordism is a topic, and the many levels of analysis,
there are some issues which are common and recurrent subjects of debate. This section summarizes some of these areas
of debate among people who are active participants, and
considers the criticisms levelled at the whole undertaking
by those who explicitly stand outside the literature. Sometimes this is an impossible distinction to maintain, for there
are ways in which even those who write critically about
post-fordism contribute to the perpetuation of the concept.
Writers themselves may object to being placed in the insider
or outsider camp.
Origins of the Transformation - From Fordism to Post-Fordism On an intellectual level, perhaps the most fundamental
issue of debate concerns the origins of the crisis. Though
in most accounts a variety of factors are adduced - technology, markets, relations of production - one factor is
usually given dominant status. The distinction could be further simplified: theories are either demand-led or supplybased, or, as political economists would put it, either the
realization of surplus value or its production provides the
focus. As Leborgne and Lipietz point out, the
185

Studies in Political Economy

commonsense interpretation of the crisis of mass production...


emphasizes the demand-side aspect: the stagnation of markets
because of the pressure of international competition, and the
growing volatility of the pattern of demand.lS

Piore and Sabel certainly put forward a demand and technology-led model. They argued that demand was becoming
more differentiated, mass markets were becoming saturated,
and new technology created the possibility of diversifying
production and increased the pace of market change. In their
view, the changing balance between stable and unstable
markets triggered the crisis in the old industrial order.
Similar themes are reiterated in the marxist literature.
For example, in an account of the change from fordism to
flexible accumulation, Harvey argues that it was primarily
through geographic expansion and debt creation, which he
calls spatial and temporal displacement, that the Fordist
regime of accumulation resolved the ever-present tendency
to overaccumulation during the long postwar boom.ls
The crisis of Fordism can to some degree be interpreted...as
running out of those options .... Spatial competition intensified..as the capacity to resolve the overaccumulation problem
through geographical displacement ran out.l7

Bramble and Fieldes, in a critique of marxist engagement


with post-fordism, characterize Harvey's analysis as essentially one of underconsumption, similar to the focus on
demand and markets of the institutionalists.w Yet other
analyses, most notably those of the French regulation
school, and of Harrison and Bluestone, emphasize a fall
in the rate of profit due to problems in the sphere of production (i.e, declining productivity, rising wages), rather than
problems in the sphere of distribution. There is also a question in the left debate regarding the role of new technology
in the crisis and restructuring. Is it a fundamental cause of
the crisis, or is the adoption of new technology a strategic
response from capital to the crisis in profits?20
These are not new debates in marxist crisis theory. Given
the multi-levelled contradictions inherent in the accumulation process, there are clearly many interrelated aspects of
every crisis. Why does it matter where the emphasis is
186

~--

..

~ ~~~~~------------------

MacDonaldlFlex

Spec Debates

placed? The main reason the causal debate in post-fordism


is critical is that it so closely shapes people's thinking about
how much, and what part, of the old system has to be overthrown to restore profitability. For example rigidities in the
labour process, in the production technology, in marketing,
in corporate bureaucracy have all been argued to be part
of the problem. The limits to possible strategies and solutions (particularly from the point of view of workers) are
very much a function of where one places the causal emphasis.
For example, Schoenberger argues that
the rigidity and eventual vulnerability of the fordist regime lies
as much in the way the nature of interfirm competition is structured under fordism as in the limits of the production apparatus
itself. This...bears in particular on the question of how the new
technologies of production need to be used by firms in order
to restore their competitiveness and profitability.Jt

In this view, the restructuring of competitive strategies is


at least as important as the reorganization of production.
An emphasis on technology or on the market tends to
generate a sense of determinism and limited options. Particularly in terms of labour strategies, it has been easy to
be overwhelmed by the argument that our whole labour relations framework is part of the problem, and that labour
must buy into a restructuring agenda set not by capital, but
by "technology," or "markets," or "competition." It is easy
for the discussion to take on racist (us versus third world
labour) and nationalistic (us versus the Japanese) undertones.
The debate about causes has generated interesting
analyses of how the fordist regime actually functioned, as
well as what caused its apparent breakdown. As Pam Rosenthal recently put it,
This new vocabulary is Janus-faced, simultaneously projecting
us forward into a confusing new moment and implying new
takes on a recent past we had thought we understood.22

There is considerable rewriting of history. To have postfordism, we have to have had fordism, and there is debate
187

Studies in Political Economy

on what that meant, globally and in particular national and


sectoral contexts.P Of particular interest is how the internationalization of production and competition under fordism
functioned. The very features that were earlier interpreted
as indicative of the relentless momentum of capitalist expansion and US hegemony are now analyzed as being the
source of the inevitable downfall of fordism. In the regulation
school approach, the fact that the export of mass production
to the third world was not matched by an equivalent rise
in mass consumption helped undermine the critical balance
between production and consumption which was the key to
the fordist system. However, as Schoenbergers' points out,
the fordist system went international precisely because the
overaccumulation problem could never be dealt with internally.
While hindsight provides a very interesting perspective
on the analysis of fordism, the determination to entirely
rewrite our recent political economy should raise doubts
about the value of the focus on regimes of accumulation.
What such a focus tends to create is a pendulum perspective:
we alternate between seeing the system as monolithic and
stable when we are in the middle of one epoch (witness
literature in the 1960s on multinational/US dominance of
the world), and seeing it only in terms of change when we
are in transition (witness the flexibility literature). The underlying continuity of the system is lost. The literature tends
to get bogged down in polarities, to get lost in what is
different rather than to look for what is the same.
This emphasis on dramatic change rather than continuity
has been at the heart of the criticism of the flexibility literature. For example, in the labour literature, while Piore and
Sabel were developing their thesis of industrial divides, the
more radical segmentation writers, the labour process
scholars, and the Cambridge school were also studying changes in workplace and labour market structure. Their work
focused on continuity through change, rather than rupture
with the past. Wilkinson's 1981 collection on The Dynamics
of Labour Market Segmentation is a good example of this
work.25 The authors focused on the ongoing shifting of
labour markets and labour relations and strategies, without
188

MacDonaldlFlex

Spec Debates

recourse to industrial divides. For these writers, flexibility


is an old theme, whose connotations are not positive from
the point of view of labour, not a term for some new era.
Most of these writers have continued to explore labour
market dynamics and restructuring, engaging in aspects of
the flexibility debate, but avoiding the more dramatic claims
of the post-fordism construction.26 The trend in the labour
process literature in the 1980s was to develop less deterministic accounts of the labour process, emphasizing resistance, consent/coercion interactions, and the myriad temporary configurations of the capital/labour conflict that
could arise. Work began to more fully integrate changes in
product market conditions and technological change, incorporating new developments into the literature as obvious
extensions of past work. The labour process writers, particularly in Britain, have been especially resistant to the
claims of post-fordism and have expended enormous energy
disputing those claims.s?
Evidence Another major aspect of debate in the flexibility/
post-fordism literature concerns evidence. How is change
demonstrated? What standard is used for proving/disproving
positions? The main approach is to document changes in
industrial organization, location and labour process and to
argue how the changes support (or dispute) one or another
version or aspect of post-fordism. Analyses tend to be of
two types - detailed case studies at the firm or industry
level,28 or more sweeping investigations of restructuring
focused on the national or international level, which attempt
to interpret aggregate data (i.e. on employment trends) or
use more anecdotal methods.
The case study approach yields a lot of insight, but becomes problematic when generalizations are made on the
basis of a specific case. Like the story of the blind people
and the elephant, each person describes a different part of
the "elephant" and forms a view of restructuring based on
that partial reading. People who study the auto industry
have a different version of how the world is unfolding than
those who study textiles, or the food industry, or services.29
And if you do not find evidence of behaviour consistent
189

Studies in Political Economy

with a post-fordist model, perhaps you are studying a firm


or industry or country that has failed to successfully adaptl
While the case study literature has certainly demonstrated
that restructuring is occurring in industry after industry, it
is less convincing in terms of how important "flexibility"
is as a theme, or what form flexibility takes. There are
various examples of flexibility, and there are examples of
more fordist adaptation. Whether that variation proves or
disproves the general notion of a post-fordist age is a subject
of continuing debate.
In the early stages of the debate researchers were looking
for particular kinds of behaviour - use of nonstandard
employment, flexible reorganization of the labour process,
adoption of flexible machinery, use of just-in-time production.
Evidence was sought of economies of scope, reorganization
of corporate structures, growth of network firms. Yet the
evidence on this was mixed. For every example there was
a counterexample, and often the same evidence was used
to prove conflicting points.
The evidence on all specific aspects of flexibilization is
controversial - whether it be the use of non-standard employment, existence of the core/periphery firm, the issue of
deskilling versus reskilling, the decline in mass markets and
mass production.t? The range of firm restructuring strategies
that the recent literature documents raises serious questions
about the grand generalizations that have been made. Even
where a consistent trend toward "flexibility" could be demonstrated - for example, the network firms of the Third
Italy - the larger question of whether this indeed could
be said to constitute a new regime of accumulation was left
hanging.
In the current literature, there seems to be an implicit
acceptance that we have entered a new age. Any form of
restructuring is argued to be consistent with a new regime
of accumulation. Some who earlier were critical of postfordism as a concept are now directing their energies to
showing the varied forms which firm behaviour can take
in the new age. The defining lines are blurring. We have
moved from notions of vertical disintegration to vertical
quasi-integration or diagonal integration; flexible special190

MacDonaldlFlex Spec Debates

ization has been matched by flexible mass production. This


is partly an issue of theory, but it is also an empirical issue,
as each piece of contradictory evidence becomes incorporated into a revised version of post-fordism. For those
critical of the whole construct, it is a moving target. Many
have reluctantly agreed to come on side, by redefining what
post-fordism is. Others argue that the variety of responses
undermines the usefulness of the post-fordist conceptualization. The data are consistent with other characterizations
of economic behaviour.
Implications of Post-Fordism In addition to debates about
causes and evidence, another issue in the literature concerns
the implications of post-fordism. Considerable debate
focuses on the labour process. There are positive and negative versions of flexibility. Workers have been devastated
by some attempts of firms to recover (wage concessions,
nonstandard employment, speed-ups). The positive visions
of flexible specialization emphasized by Piore and Sabel
are suspect. Work teams, quality circles, the revival of the
worker as craftsperson, the involvement of workers in conception which they advocate for big business (mimicking
the Japanese model) are attacked as intensifying work and
coopting labour.t! The version of flexible specialization that
sees a renewal of the small business sector and a more
decentralized economy and labour market is criticized as
antithetical to the interests of organized labour.
There is considerable debate over whether so-called
Taylorist methods of labour control are indeed incompatible
with the new environment - concern that the case against
"fordist production" has been overstated. This is evident in
the debate carried on in the pages of Industrial Relations
in 1986 between Piore and Shaiken et al, where the latter
argue that work reorganization and technology continue to
be primarily used to increase managerial control, often with
a rhetoric of flexibility (the need to enhance the firm's
ability to respond to the market and to increase both productivity and quality).32 Both positions are taken on by Kelley,
who has done detailed survey work on the introduction of
programmable technology in the US machining industry.33
191

Studies in Political Economy

She has attempted to test a three-fold typology of alternative


forms of organizing programming tasks: worker-centred
control (a la Piore), Taylorist control (a la Shaiken), and
shared control. Her evidence shows that shared control is
the dominant form, with worker-centred organization being
the least common. She also argues that the technological
factors are less important than institutional factors in determining the form of work organization. Clarke, in a critique
of both fordism and post-fordism, puts the point succinctly
when he says "post-fordist technologies can no more liberate
the working class than could the technology of fordism,
because the working class is not exploited and oppressed
by technology but by capitalism.t'H
The implications for industrial organization and geographic location are also controversial. Changes in industrial
organization affect whether jobs will tend to be concentrated
in a few large plants or dispersed among smaller production
sites. One argument put forward within the flexibility literature is that new technology has eroded past economies of
scale and undermined the advantages of large capital; this
has been reinforced by changes in markets (also partly related to technological innovations) which have created
market niches for small firms that are able to react quickly
to changes. Still other writers emphasize the way reconcentration will occur and the way large corporations can
become more flexible. The search for flexibility may result
in changes in corporate structure without necessarily decreasing the concentration of power and control in an industry or in the economy as a whole (as in Japan). Harrison
argues that the big firms are returning "to the centre of the
playing field. Both alone and in all manner of partnerships
with one another ... every country's largest companies are
showing new signs of vitality. "35
The forms which concentrated economic power takes are
changing (reflected in terms like vertical quasi-integration),
but the vision of economic growth led by small firms, with
its promise of geographic decentralization, is increasingly
under attack. The distinguishing feature of the marxist version of post-fordism is that it emphasizes the tension in the
accumulation process between the forces of competition and
192

MacDonald/Flex Spec Debates

concentration, while retaining the notion that there is a basic


tendency towards concentration of capital and economic
power. As Harvey writes, "flexibility has little or nothing
to do with decentralizing either political or economic power
and everything to do with maintaining highly centralized
control through decentralizing tactics. "36
Some of the most emotional debate has been around the
distribution of the costs and benefits of flexibilization.
Gender and race issues are increasingly important in these
discussions. A very fundamental criticism is that much of
the literature suffers from gender blindness, or male bias.37
Writers point out that the current restructuring, whatever
one calls it, is gendered, and the models used to capture it
are gendered. They note that a strategy of functional flexibility typically uses male workers. The harsher consequences of flexibility are borne by female workers. Anna Pollert
emphasizes that this is nothing new, pointing to earlier work
on labour market segmentation.Jf
Walby, in a critique of Atkinson's model, emphasizes that
the "rounds of gender restructuring" are fundamental to understanding modern capitalism and argues that this dimension is lost in the flexibility model.t? She maintains that it
is not as straightforward as simply identifying "flexibilization" with "feminization" of the labour force, nor of recognizing a "male core" and a "female periphery." Jane Jenson,
in her critique of Piore and Sabel, emphasizes the gendering
of the concept of "skill" and the gendering of technclogy.F'
Flexible specialization
reinforces this privileging of
"skilled" (male) work, further reinforcing the invisibility
of the real skill of women in the so-called "unskilled" jobs.
Rubery and the Cambridge Labour Studies Group have also
repeatedly emphasized that the divisions in the labour force,
including divisions by gender, reflect power differences
which are then socially constructed as skill differences.f!
The homeworkers who sew for the network firms in the
textile industry of the Third Italy are as skilled as the
"flexibly specialized" men in the formal sector of that industry. The concern is that the flexibility literature, particularly that part which focuses on labour market processes,

193

Studies in Political Economy

is buying into the politics of fragmentation and reinforcing


unequal gender relations.
The tendency to bury gender issues is well illustrated in
Piore's contribution to the 1986 Industrial Relations debate.42 Piore contrasts the employment flexibility debate
with the broader notion of flexibility in the management
literature, which covers a wide range of reforms to make
firms responsive to market conditions. Piore uses the high
fashion garment industry in a city like New York as an
example of the emergent structures linking small and
medium-sized firms. The account emphasizes the delicate
balance between cooperation and competition which has
been arrived at through the formal and informal institutional
structures that regulate behaviour, train workers, impose
work rules and so forth. In the whole sketch, which is a
most compelling account of mutual self-interest, there is
not one mention of the gender aspects of employment and
the labour process. One suspects that there is a crucial
gender dimension to the flexibility that is achieved - an
underside of the arrangement which is veiled.
One of the most controversial topics in the literature and
in the critiques of post-fordism concerns the political implications - for unions and the left.43 To many, post-fordism
is inextricably connected with the right wing political agenda of deregulation, attacks on labour and a return to the
"free market." The management/business
version of
"flexibility" calls for unfettering capital, in its dealings with
labour, resources, capital and nation states. Are there other
options, which respond to the same (asserted) changes in
competitive and technological conditions but which produce
outcomes more in the interest of labour?
Even Piore recognizes that there is nothing automatic
about his optimistic version of the possibilities created by
the second industrial divide. He sees that there are political
choices to be made, and draws interesting lessons from a
comparison of the European and American versions of fordist rigidities and how they should be altered. He is clear
that a market solution will be destructive, and a new institutional framework must be created in which flexibility
for capital can be combined with protections for workers.
194

MacDonaldlFlex

Spec Debates

The task is to amend the institutional framework, not abandon employment policy.
The labour market will always have a structure, just as the
business finn will have a structure. The issue is what the new
structure will look like and how existing institutions can be
changed in order to create it.44
Marxists, of course, do not agree with this vision of a
harmony of interests, and analyze the future options in terms
of class struggle. There is serious debate on the left regarding the strategic implications of the post-fordist analysis.
Some argue that the new economic realities require a change
in the left agenda. For example, traditional social democratic
programs and strategies are deemed untenable in the new
era, with more decentralized approaches to welfare called
for to fit the new regime of accumulation. Some hold out
new options for smaller scale local worker-owned or comanaged facilities - a revised version of small is beautiful.
Others see the satumian style of labour accommodation to
management's agenda as a valid route. The issue is to identify a progressive mode of regulation that will be suited to
the new regime of accumulation.O Such thinking has been
challenged by other marxists, giving rise to heated debate,
such as the "New Times" discussion in Britain.46 David
Harvey argues that "the challenge we face ...is to reorient
the socialist project to the conditions of the day without
simply drifting with every capitalist wind that blows." He
rightly points out that
much of the current argumentin the socialist camp concerning
notions of 'post-fordism'...circles around whether and to what
degree the changes now in motion have socialist potential or
whether they are so deeply subservient to capitalism that they
should be resisted absolutely.s?
Many on the left feel strongly that the latter is true.
Furthermore, many feel that it is the post-fordist construction itself which is dangerous. By emphasizing the
process of capital accumulation it often falls into the trap
of trying to "fix" capitalism - trying to find the changes in
the mode of regulation which would resolve this crisis the
195

Studies in Political Economy

way Keynesian policies resolved the last capitalist crisis.


The approach emphasizes the logic of capital, rather than
class struggle, and does not challenge the basic principles
of capitalism. Pollert argues that the radical strategies associated with it essentially involve working with capital,
not against it. As she puts it, "the language of flexibility
reveals itself as the language of social integration of the
1980s: how to live with insecurity and unemployment and
learn to love it. "48
Pollert also identifies another source of argument, when
she points out the confusion in the literature between
"description, prescription and prediction."49 Does it provide
new opportunities for small firms/functional flexibility, or
could it provide these opportunities? Is post-fordism a concept or a perspective? For some it is the former, merely a
shorthand for certain characteristics of the present economy,
which one then interprets from an existing perspective. For
others, it is clearly an analytical perspective, particularly
as argued in the regulation approach. Rustin says
the post-fordist hypothesis... is the nearest thing we have to a
paradigm which can link widespread changes in forms of
production to changes in class relations, state forms and individual identities.SO

The issue for Rustin and others is whether as a paradigm


it misspecifies the dynamic of change within capitalism.
Much of the acrimony in the literature arises from such
confusion of terms and interpretations. Much time has been
wasted because of the profusion of terms and the lack of
clear definitions. Writers use terms differently.51 Many who
use the term post-fordism clearly do so in a descriptive
way, to describe tendencies which are then interpreted either
positively or negatively. However, the post-fordism debate
has challenged political economy not as a label but as an
analysis and an agenda.
Conclusion As this review has tried to emphasize, the postfordist conceptualization is extremely controversial. The
post-fordism/flexibility
debate is many things to many
people. To some, for example, combining the two terms
196

MacDonald/Flex

Spec Debates

would be considered unacceptable. At a most basic level,


the post-fordism construction represents an effort to shake
ourselves out of established modes of thought, commensurate with the way Western capitalist economies have been
shaken out of the real or perceived complacency of the postwar boom. On the positive side, attention has been directed
to new forms of corporate organization, economies of scope
and the geography of capital accumulation. Tremendous
documentation of the impact of restructuring on specific
firms, workers, and communities has been amassed. Some
of the literature is motivated by serious concern with the
strategic and political implications of current economic conditions for labour, for women and others.
At a simplistic level, it may be true that "we are all
post-fordists now," just as in the post-war period economists
could say "we are all Keynesians now." On one level, postfordism has simply become a shorthand label for conditions
in the economy of the 1980s and beyond - for the obvious
restructuring that has occurred and continues to occur. As
we have seen, many of the earlier critiques have been incorporated into the literature, and continue as debates about
the specifics of the post-fordist age. It is hard to write about
restructuring and not have someone label your work as part
of the post-fordist literature.
But it is still true that post-fordism is a particular interpretation and construction of this age that needs, I think,
to be viewed at best with scepticism, and at worst with
alarm. The charges that it is gender-biased, technologically-deterministic, and that it repackages capital's interests
in the paralysing language of market forces, international
competition and globalization are very serious. Fundamental
questions of class struggle and political strategy are often
lost in the debate.
The critics are themselves actively involved in researching the same issues, examining changes in the labour
process, industrial organization and the changing international and gender division of labour. However, they feel
this is best done without recourse to constructions like
flexible specialization, or post-fordism. Their concern is that
this construction obstructs our understanding of current
197

Studies

in Political

Economy

capitalist dynamics rather than clarifying it. This issue may


become increasingly irrelevant, however, as the post-fordist
literature continues to amend its version of the new world
in light of the evidence of the many and varied roads to
renewed profitability. As the accounts become more sophisticated - as we recognize that renewed Taylorism can be a
successful source of flexibility for companies just as readily
as can flexible specialization - then post-fordism loses its
meaning.
Generally, the emphasis on the changed face of capitalism
and restructuring is misplaced. There is always a tension
in capitalism between the need for control and the need for
flexibility, between the forces of competition and concentration, between centralization and decentralization. The more
things change, the more they remain the same - firms continue to adapt to changed market situations and to search
for ways of maintaining profit; firms and workers continue
to struggle over the terms and conditions of work; workers
try to protect their jobs; households try to make ends meet.
This said, conditions for particular workers, firms, households, regions, and national economies can change dramatically as local and international shifts occur. Concrete investigation of these changes is important because through
them we may derive political and economic strategies appropriate for particular workers, regions or genders, as the
case may be. Post-fordism and flexibility are important concepts only to the extent they can enlighten those strategic
investigations.
Notes
1.

2.

~.

198

See, for example. M. Aglietta, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation


(London: 1976); Claus Offe, Disorganized Capitalism (Cambridge:
1985); and S. Lash and L. Urry, The End of Organized Capitalism
(Cambridge: 1987).
M. Piore and C. Sabel. The Second Industrial Divide (New York:
1984); J. Atkinson, "Flexibility: Planning for an Uncertain Future,"
Manpower Policy and Practice 1 (Summer 1985); and J. Atkinson
and D. Gregory, "A Flexible Future: Britain's Dual Labour Force,"
Marxism Today 30/4 (1986).
Piore and Sabel, TM Second Industrial Divide ... p. 17.

MacDonaldlFlex

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

11.

Spec Debates

Classic works in the labour process literature include H. Bravennan,


Labour and Monopoly Capital (New York: 1974); M. Buraway,
Manufacturing Consent (Chicago: 1979); C. Littler, The Development
of the Labour Process in Capitalist Societies (London: 1982); R.
Edwards, Contested Terrain: The Transformation of the Workplace
in Twentieth Century Capitalism (New York: 1979); and A. Friedman,
Industry and Labour: Class Struggle at Work and Monopoly
Capitalism (London: 1977).
Collections of case studies include S. Wood (00.), The Transformation of Work? (London: 1989); D. Knights and H. Willmott (OOs.),
New Technology and the Labour Process (London: 1988); F. Green
(ed.), Restructuring of the UK. Economy (London: 1989).
Ongoing debate has filled recent volumes of the journals Capital
and Class, New Left Review, Cambridge Journal of Economics,
Labour and Society and Work, Employment and Society. Collections
of case studies include S. Wood (00.), The Transformation of Work?
(London: 1989); D. Knights and H. Willmott (eds.), New Technology
and the Labour Process (London: 1988); F. Green, Restructuring of
the UK. Economy (London: 1989).
See, for example, the attempts at periodization in D. Gordon, R.
Edwards and M. Reich, Segmented Work, Divided Workers
(Cambridge: 1982); P. Baran and P. Sweezy, Monopoly Capitalism
(New York: 1965); and J. O'Connor, The Fiscal Crisis of the State
(New York: 1973).
Claus Offe, for example, uses the tenn Disorganized Capitalism,
and Scott and Urry call their book The End of Organized Capitalism,
to contrast the new regime with the old. Harvey uses the tenn
"flexible accumulation" to contrast with fordism, as does Schoenberger. See D. Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford:
1989) and E. Schoenberger, "From Fordism to Flexible Accumulation: Technology, Competitive Strategies and International Location," Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 6/3
(September 1988). See also S. Bowles, D. Gordon and T. Weisskopf,
Beyond the Wasteland (New York: 1983).
D. Leborgne and A. Lipietz, "New Technologies, New Modes of
Regulation: Some Spatial Implications," Environment and Planning
D: Society and Space 6/3 (September 1988).
See, for example, D. Massey, Spatial Divisions of Labour (London:
1984); D. Massey and J. Allen, Uneven Redevelopment (London:
1988); R. Martin and R. Rowthom (eds.), The Geography of Deindustriallzation (London: 1986); Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity; Schoenberger, "From Fordism to Flexible Accumulation ..; A.
Scott and M. Storper, "High Technology Industry and Regional
Development: A Theoretical Critique and Reconstruction," International Social Science Journal 1/12 (1987); M. Storper and R. Walker,
The Capitalist Imperative : Territory, Technology and Industrial
Growth (New York: 1989).
See M. Castells (ed.), High Technology, Space and Society (Beverly
Hills: 1985); B. Bluestone and B. Harrison, The Deindustrializatlon
of America (New York: 1982) and B. Harrison and B. Bluestone,
The Great U-Turn (New York: 1989); A. Saxenian, "Silicon Valley

199

Studies

in Political

Economy

and Route 128: Regional Prototypes or Historic Exceptions? ," in


Castells, High Technology .....
12. Harvey. The Condition of Postmodernity,
13. Storper and Walker, The Capitalist Imperative ... p. 1.
14. Leborgne and Lipietz, "New Technologies ...," p. 277.
15. Ibid. p. 267.
16. Harvey. The Condition of Postmodernity, Chapter 9 and 10.
17. Ibid. pp. 186-7.
18. T. Bramble and D. Fie1des, "Theories of 'Post-Fordism': A Critique"
Discussion Paper 24190, Department of Economics. La Trobe University, Bundoora. Victoria, Australia.
19. B. Harrison and B. Bluestone. "Wage Polarisation in the US and
the 'Flexibility' Debate," Cambridge Journal of Economics 14 (1990)
pp.364-5.
20. A critique of the often implicit technological determinism of some
of the post-fordist literature is found in M. Rustin. "The politics of
Post-Fordism: or, The Trouble with 'New Times'," New Left Review
175 (May-June 1989) and S. Clarke, "New Utopias for Old: Fordist
Dreams and Post-Fordist Fantasies," Capital and Class 42 (Winter
1990).
21. Schoenberger. "From Fordism to Flexible Accumulation ...," p. 246.
22. P. Rosenthal, "Jacked In: Fordism, Cyberpunk. Marxism," Socialist
Review 21/1 (January-March 1991), p.79.
23. See A. Lipietz, Mirages and Miracles: The Crisis of Global Fordism
(London: 1987) and a critique by A. Amsden. "Third World Industrialization: 'Global Fordism' or a New Model?," New Left Review
182 (July/August 1990). On Canada. see J. Jenson. "'Different' but
not 'Exceptional': Canada's Permeable Fordism,' Canadian Review
of Sociology and Anthropology 26/1 (February 1989).
24. Schoenberger. "From Fordism to Flexible Accumulation."
25. F. Wilkinson (ed.), The Dynamics of Labour Marlcet Segmentation
(London: 1981). This collection was followed by R. Tarling and F.
Wilkinson (eds.), Flexibility in Labour Markets (London: 1987).
which again documented and analyzed the ongoing changes.
26. For a review see S. Rosenberg, "From Segmentation to Flexibility,"
Labour and Society 14/4 (October 1989).
27. See, for example. K. Williams. T. Cutler. J. Williams and C. Haslam.
"The End of Mass Production?," Economy and Society 16/3 (1987).
and J. Tomaney, "The Realities of Workplace Flexibility," Capital
and Class 40 (Spring 1990).
28. See Note 6 ; additional examples include M. Storper, "The Transition
to Flexible Specialization
in the US Film Industry: External
Economies. the Division of Labour and the Crossing of Industrial
Divides," Cambridge Journal of Economics 13 (1989); Saxenian,
"Silicon Valley ...; J. Rubery and F. Wilkinson. "Distribution.
Flexibility of Production and the British Footwear Industry," Labour
and Society 14/2 (April 1989).
29. See. for example. B. Neis, "From Cod Blocks to Fish Food: The
Crisis and Restructuring in the Newfoundland Fishing Industry, 196886" Ph.D Dissertation, University of Toronto. 1988; and C. Smith

200

MacDonaldlFlex

30.

31.
32.

33.

34.
35.

36.
37.

38.
39.
40.
41.
42.
43.

44.
45.

46.
47.
48.
49.
SO.
51.

Spec Debates

"Flexible Specialization. Automation and Mass Production." Work,


Employment and Society 3/2 (1989).
See Wood. The Transformation of Work ; and A. Pollert, "Dismantling
Flexibility." Capital and Class 34 (Spring 1988); and idem "The
Flexible Finn: Fixation or Fact?," Work, Employment and Society
2/3 (September 19880).
See H. Shaiken, S. Herzenberg and S. Kuhn. "The Work Process
Under More Flexible Production," Industrial Relations 25/2 (Spring
1986) and Tomaney, "The Reality of Workplace Flexibility."
Shaiken et al, "The Work Process...; and M. Piore, "Perspectives
on Labour Market Flexibility." Industrial Relations 24/2 (Spring
1986).
M. R. Kelley. "Alternative Forms of Work Organization Under
Programmable Automation." in S. Wood (ed.), The Transformation
of Work?
Clarke. "New Utopias for Old...," p, ISO.
B. Harrison. "The Big Firms are Coming out of the Comer: The
Resurgence of Economic Scale and Industrial Power in the 'Age of
Flexibility'," Working Paper 89-39, School of Urban and Public Affairs. Carnegie Mellon University. p.2.
D. Harvey. "Flexibility: Threat or Opportunity," Socialist Review
21/2 (January 1991). p.73.
See Pollert, "Dismantling Flexibility... and "The 'Flexible Finn"';
J. Jenson, "The Talents of Women, the Skills of Men: Flexible
Specialization and Women," in S. Wood. The Transformation of
Work?; S. Walby. "Flexibility and the Changing Sexual Division of
Labour." in S. Wood. The Transformation of Work?; G. Standing.
Global Feminization Through Flexible Labour, Working Paper No.
31, ILO (1989).
Pollert, "Dismantling Flexibility," p. 70-1.
Walby, "Flexibility and the Changing Sexual Division of Labour....
Jenson, "The Talents of Women....
See. for example. J. Rubery, "Flexibility in Labour Costs in NonUnion Firms," in Tarling and Wilkinson, Flexibility in Labour
Markets.
Piore, "Perspectives on Labour Market Flexibility."
See R. Mahon, "From Fordism to...?: New Technology. Labour
Markets and Unions," Economic and Industrial Democracy 8/2
(1987).
Ibid. p. 163.
An interesting Canadian collection of articles is D. Drache and M.
Gertler (eds.), The New Era of Global Competition: State Power
and Market Power (Montreal and Kingston 1991).
See Rustin, "The Politics of Post-Fordism ... and Clarke, "New
Utopias for Old.;" for reviews.
Harvey. "Flexibility: Threat or Opportunity," p. 65-6.
Pollert, "Dismantling Flexibility," p, 72.
Pollert, "The 'Flexible Pirm' ...,' pp. 298-9.
Rustin, "The Politics of Post-Fordism...," p. 56.
This point is well illustrated by Stephen Wood in his critical introduction to The Transformation of Work?

lO\