Making Out in Capitalism: Reflections on Burawoy's Manufacturing Consent

(Essay by Keith Rollag for Soc 260 Class)

This essay is a review of Michael Burawoy's view of labor under capitalism as expressed in his book Manufacturing Consent (Burawoy, 1979). After briefly exploring its neo-Marxist context, I will summarize the main conclusions and criticisms of the book, focusing specifically on Burawoy's use of the game metaphor in labor/capital relations.

Introduction: Modern Marxist Theory of Labor and Organization

Marxism was largely developed as a critique of capitalism. Marxists believe that since the interests of labor and capital are fundamentally opposed, capitalism ultimately oppresses the working class. Organizations are merely capitalist tools designed to control and dominate workers, maximizing the extraction of excess, "unpaid labor" from the shop floor.

While the rise of capitalistic democracy and the Cold War suppressed Marxist dialogue in the West, the 60's protest movement created a resurgence of Marxist thought, particularly regarding labor (Sorenson, 1985). Braverman built on Marx's anti-labor view of capitalism by adding that organizational development under capitalism serves to "de-skill" workers and obscure the real value of labor (Braverman, 1973). Marxists believe that most modern organizational theory was developed in the context of capitalism and serves to perpetuate and idealize it (Burawoy, 1979).

Burawoy's Critique of Marx and Braverman

While Burawoy agrees with most traditional Marxist views, he disagrees with Marx and Braverman on the mechanisms of labor control by capitalism. Instead of viewing capitalistic control as despotic or "de-skilling", Burawoy observes a more hegemonic methodology of co-optation and subtle coercion.

Rather than ask the traditional Marxist question of "Why do workers work at all (given their interests are opposite those of capitalists)?", Burawoy wonders why workers work as hard as they do (knowing their efforts merely make more money for the company owners). Burawoy notes that workers today actually embrace the fundamentals of capitalism that constrain them.


How Corporations Manufacture Consent

Based on his experience as a laborer in a piece-rate machine shop, he concludes that management really controls workers by giving labor the "illusion of choice" in a highly restrictive environment. Worker participation in this co-optation creates consent and minimizes the potential of class consciousness and labor-management conflict while maximizing productivity.

Management "manufactures consent" using a variety of strategies. At Allied Corporation, Burawoy observed the following:

1. Piece-rate Pay System

In the machine shop, the piece-rate system created the illusion of labor as a game. Workers competed with each other to "make out" and surpass their expected production quotas. Over time the job satisfaction came from mastering the intricate and often devious strategies to "make out" under various production conditions. Those more skillful in "playing all the angles" garnered the most respect and prestige.

The "making out" game separated the worker's interests and obscured the fact that management was gaining productivity with only minor increases in wages. The act of playing the game generated consent for its rules while providing a challenging diversion to the general boredom of repetitive labor (Burawoy, 1979).

2. Internal Labor Market

Increasing job mobility within the company allowed management to reduce conflict and increase the illusion that workers had choice. Potential labor conflicts could be avoided by separating workers.

3. Collective Bargaining

Burawoy also concluded that the collective bargaining between unions and management was also another "game" that gave labor the illusion of participation and choice.

Therefore, instead of alienating workers, modern capitalism has succeeded in co-opting workers into embracing capitalism as the preferred ideology (despite the fundamental differences between capital and labor). While Burawoy contends that capitalism is merely the current phase in the evolution of society, he is pessimistic that capitalism will decline in the near future (Burawoy, 1979).


Reaction and Criticism

The initial book reviews of Manufacturing Consent ranged from "one of the most significant contributions to industrial sociology" (Giddens, 1981) and "deceptively important" (Imershein, 1982) to "disappointing" (Osterman, 1982). As expected, Burawoy's Marxist interpretations generated controversy.

Most reviewers were intrigued by the concept of "making out" and it's ability to swiftly co-opt even an avowed Marxist into working extremely hard for corporate profit. Most were impressed with Burawoy's research dedication and his ability to eloquently place his ethnographic observations in a Marxist perspective.

There were several critiques of Burawoy's study. Some commented that it wasn't easily generalizable beyond the piece-rate shop floor (Imershein 1982, Osterman 1982), since only 6.1% of US workers are paid piece-rate (Osterman, 1982). Another reviewer noted that like most Marxists Burawoy fails to suggest how one would effectively organize labor under a socialist system (Drury, 1981). Finally, one critic wonders whether the pleasure and satisfaction the laborers achieve in "making out" is truly a consent to capitalism (Osterman, 1982).


Burawoy and the Game Metaphor

I believe that Burawoy's game metaphor has larger implications than Burawoy claims. The use of reward games to extract higher productivity out of lower status workers pervades the entire hierarchy of work from the shop floor to the executive suite. Furthermore, the strong Marxist distinction between management and labor is an oversimplification that unnecessarily divides Marxist and mainstream organizational theories.

Every level in an organization extracts "unpaid value" from those resources below by nurturing a game-based reward system. Workers and managers derive satisfaction from discovering the strategies needed to master the game and thus gain respect and prestige among peers. "Making out" is more explicit at lower levels and more implicit at higher levels. Individuals strive to achieve a work status level (i.e, game level) that is sufficiently challenging and rewarding. If the game is too easy workers become bored. If the game is too difficult workers become discouraged and unproductive.

Workers at higher levels can manipulate the reward rules to foster a highly productive culture at lower levels (though the game may develop irrespective of formal action from above). At a particular level, "making out" may involve explicit factors such as monthly sales and piece-rate, or implicit factors such as initiative, creativity, or teamwork. In a sense all management techniques are subtle attempts to control subordinate behavior by "affecting the rules of the game".

For example, academia has developed an surprisingly explicit piece-rate reward system that couples publishing of research to tenureship. Like the Allied shop floor, the tenure game arose from an initial struggle between academic administration and faculty, and eventually "took a life of it's own". In fact, according to a 1989 Carnegie study, 42% of surveyed professors agreed to the statement that at their schools "publications used for tenure and promotion are just counted, not qualitatively measured" (excerpted from Anderson, 1992).

The resulting strategies that untenured faculty use to "make out" in this reward system are quite similar to the Allied shop floor. PhD students ensure their doctoral dissertation can generate publishable papers in the same way machine shop operators make a few pieces on setup to get a head start on "making out". Proper social relations with support personnel are critical in both jobs.

Untenured faculty participation in this publication game "generates consent with respect to its rules". By the time they master the game and achieve tenure the game can become an end in itself. Prestige, sense of accomplishment, and pride that comes with extensive publishing often exceeds the importance of monetary gains. In effect, the rules of "making out" and "making tenure" are similar sets of social relations in production (as defined by Burawoy 1979 p. 15).

I also believe that the traditional Marxist bifurcation of organizations into management and labor not only oversimplifies the society of work but unnecessarily creates hostility toward the ideology. While exploitation of lower status workers is most oppressive when it directly affects quality of life (most seen in the working class), the exploitation occurs at all levels. Since most intellectuals are not of the working class, it's hard for most of these "capitalists" to accept blame for worker oppression when they feel oppressed themselves.

At the top of the capitalistic hierarchy those free of oppression compete not to fulfill desires of human denomination but largely for personal satisfaction and prestige at being the best in the game. Burawoy's game metaphor is inherent in the basis of capitalism, and it's the game that deserves the most condemnation from Marxists and everyone else. Only when society tires of the game will it move beyond it.


Anderson, M. (1992), Imposters at the Temple, New York: Simon & Schuster

Braverman, H. (1974), Labor & Monopoly Capital, New York: Monthly Review Press

Burawoy, M. (1979), Manufacturing Consent : Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism, University of Chicago Press

Drury, S. B. (1981), "Michael Burawoy: Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism", Book Review, American Academy of Political and Social Science Annals, 455: May 1981, p. 203

Giddens, A. (1981), "Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism", Book Review, American Journal of Sociology, 87: July 1981, p. 192-194.

Imershein, A. W. (1982), "Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism", Book Review, Social Forces 61:1 Sept 1982, p. 309-311.

Osterman, P. (1981), "Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism", Book Review, Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 36: Oct. 1982, p. 139-141

Sorenson, K. N. (1985), "Technology and Industrial Democracy -- An Inquiry into Some Theoretical Issues and Their Social Basis", Organizational Studies, 6:2, p. 139-160.