How Do Skills Matter? Skill Dynamics, Global Capitalism,
and Critical Theories of Work
Since the publication of Braverman’s (1974) Labour and Monopoly Capital, the role that changes in aggregate worker skills play in the development of capitalist employment relations has been controversial amongst labour process theorists. This paper argues that skills do play an important role in understanding global capitalist development. To make that argument, the intellectual history of this line of inquiry is outlined, starting with the initial post-Braverman interest in explicating his de-skilling thesis, to latter work that cast serious doubt on its validity, and the consequent loss of interest in skills as a major driver of capitalist development. Then the recent revival of interest in skills (cf. Adler, 2004; Littler & Innes, 2003) is analyzed in conjunction with Thompson and Newsome’s (2004) agnostic perspective on the importance of skill change to argue that skill change remains a significant motive force, one critical to understanding global change.
I. Worker skills and capitalism: Development of Labour Process Theory perspectives
Worker skills, and the changes they undergo within capitalist labour processes, were traditionally at the forefront of concern for labour process theorists. Braverman’s (1974) work, which tied a de-skilling thesis to his analysis of Taylorism, is emblematic of this, and spawned a decades’ worth of research analyzing and critiquing the notion that de-skilling is characteristic of advanced capitalism (Knights & Willmott, 1990). However, from c. 1990 until recently, skills left the front-burner of labour process theory (LPT) in particular and left-oriented critiques of work more generally. This paper reviews the intellectual history of the analysis of skills from Braverman forward, and argues that skills analysis is indeed a necessary component of any critical-left...