3. The problem of identifying economic waste in a capitalist economy
As I argued in the previous section of this series, if we are going to set as our aim the complete abolition of labor, there is a big question posed by the problem of a capitalist economy. To reiterate it briefly: In an economy based on directly social labor, particular forms of concrete labor appear as abstract homogenous labor. The labor of the doctor, the janitor, the autoworker or the soldier do not appear in these concrete forms but only as wages, salaries, etc. The same is true for the various sectors of the economy — industrial, services, agriculture and the state. Finally, whatever waste might be present in the economy, and which would serve as the material basis for a reduction of hours of labor, appear in the economy as just another cost.
One expenditure of abstract homogenous labor is exactly identical in every way to every other expenditure of abstract homogenous labor
There is, therefore, no way to tell industrial production from industrial waste, medical care from murdering civilians simply by going through the North American Industry Classification System and cherry picking what labor is useful and what labor is not. If medical care is useful, is it still useful when it is being used to return a soldier to the battlefield? If industrial production is assumed to be useful, is it still useful when the product is military materiale? Is the industrial labor producing military boots more or less useful than the labor expended bussing a table in a restaurant? We can make moral judgments on this, but Obama’s morality is different than mine.
I have already shown you this chart, which demonstrates that between 1964 and 2012, the nation’s labor force doubled.
During the same time as the labor force doubled, I showed, hours of labor doubled as well:
But this doubling of hours of labor only examines part of what has actually happened in the last fifty years. Not only has the labor force and hours of labor doubled, the Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows during that same period output per worker increased at an annual average rate of approximately 2 percent over the last fifty years. Which means output per employed worker has doubled as well.
That means we have achieved a five-fold increase in total material wealth produced annually between 1964 and 2012 in the United States. Yet, for all this increase in material wealth, poverty still exists.
It gets worse: According to data supplied by the Department of Agriculture, between 1964 and 2012, the farm labor force fell from 7.2 million to 872 thousand — a fall of 88%. Yet, despite the fall in the number of people engaged in agriculture over the period owing to improvements in the productivity of farm labor, people still go to bed hungry in this country. Total real material output rises to 500% overall and labor needed in agriculture falls 88%; yet, despite this improvement in material wealth, 43 million workers still live in poverty according to Washington. Moreover, there has been an actual increase in the number of workers living in poverty since 1964.
Despite these facts, Washington tells us we cannot afford our current material standard of living. Politicians say either retirement has to be delayed and medical coverage cut, or Washington must go still deeper in debt.
Now ask yourself: If you are working twice as long as your parents, producing five times as much material wealth, should you be better or worse off than they were? So where did all that increased wealth go? Since you are, in fact, poorer than your parents, it is obvious none of that increased wealth made its way into your pockets.
So why are we working like dogs if no increase in the amount of labor we do adds anything to our material standard of living? Ask politicians in Washington this question and they will give you two different answers. The GOP says you need to learn to live within your means, while the Democrats say you need to carry even more public debt. However, ‘your means’ have increased five-fold in the past fifty years, and debt cannot by anything that has not already appeared on the shelf at Wal-Mart. Both Republicans and Democrats say you aren’t working hard or long enough — you need to work more years and more hours. So, in return for all this additional work, they promise you less.
And why isn’t the communist Left addressing this issue?
Personally, I think they don’t talk about it because the labor hours issue doesn’t involve more fascist state spending. The communist Left in this country are a bunch of fascists dressed up as communists. For the communist Left, there is no problem that cannot be fixed with more fascist state spending.
The first and most banal of objections to the possibility labor can be reduced or even abolished altogether that I usually hear from communists is that any reduction in hours of labor must lead to a fall in real or nominal wages. This argument is entirely without any merit whatsoever and is made mostly by people who are either completely ignorant of the difference between nominal and real wages or prefer to pretend they don’t know the difference.
The argument is used only to distract people from the fact that nominal wages have been rising for decades while real wage has been falling. The real hourly wage peaked in 1970, as research shows, and has been stagnant even in the empirical data of the fascist state. This data is not to be trusted, however, since it rests on the most savage and highly suspect notions of ‘utility’. It is nothing more than an attempt to quantify how much it costs to maintain the working class at the lowest possible level of material subsistence consistent with the continued physical existence of the worker. And, moreover, the data itself is highly vulnerable to manipulation by anyone with a political agenda — in first place corporate interests in Washington.
However, if we measured wages in 2012 by the same objective standard used in 1964 — a definite quantity of gold with a definite exchange rate with dollars — the real wage in 2012 has fallen to just 18 percent of what it was in 1970.
Using this measure there is no question why you think you are poorer than your parents. You clearly are only earning in a week what your parents earned in a single day when they were your age.
The apologists for the fascist state (and dumb Marxist academics following them) argue employing gold as a measure for the real wage is ‘gold-buggery’ or fraudulent. Gold, they say, is a barbaric relic.
Really? Whoever showed this to be true? Marxists who agree with this bourgeois opinion need to provide evidence that this is true — any empirical evidence at all that the dollar gives gold its value, not the other way around. There are dozens of currencies in use today and hundreds in the last 200 years. Communists who mindlessly repeat the bullshit spewed by bourgeois economists need to show — employing actual empirical data, not their fevered delusions — how any currency in the world market today — from the dollar, to the euro, to the yen, or yuan — gives gold its value.
You fuckers using M.E.L.T. theory need to prove it or pack your shit and go back to the university cubicle where you fuckers belong.
There is no question at all that Americans are doing twice as much labor, producing 2.5 times as much output, for wages that are a fifth of what they were in 1964. Longer hours of labor has done nothing to increase wages; instead they have been accompanied by a continuous fall in wages. That 80 percent fall in wages between 1970 and 2012 had to go somewhere — if it did not go to the wages, then where?
There is no question what has happened in the past fifty years: every hour of additional labor has been diverted to profits and fascist state spending. The argument of the Republicans is that increased profits is necessary to the increase employment of the working class. The argument of the Democrats is that increased fascist state spending is necessary to increase the material living standard of the working class. In fact what is demonstrated in the data is that increased labor by the working class only increases profits and fascist state spending. Increased hours of labor does nothing for the working class but make it poorer — there is no trickle down.
What is so fascinating about this is that every statistic I have mentioned comes down to the same thing, which every communist researcher knows to be true. There has only been a deterioration of the condition of the working class over the past fifty years. However, no communist researcher ever seems to ever make the connection between this fact the working class is poorer today than fifty years ago and the increase in hours of labor over the same period. The cause of our increasing poverty is always attributed to some cause other than labor. Dumenil and Levy for instance argue:
“The new configuration of income distribution was the outcome of various converging trends. Strong pressure was placed on the mass of salaried workers, which helped restore profit rates from their low levels of the 1970s or, at least, to put an end to their downward trend. The opening of trade and capital frontiers paved the way to large investments in the regions of the world where prevailing social conditions allowed for high returns, thus generating income flows in favor of the U.S. upper classes (and broader groups that benefit to some extent by capital income). Free trade increased the pressure on workers, the effect of the competition emanating from countries where labor costs are low. Large capital income flows also derived from the growing indebtedness of households and the government. Extreme degrees of sophistication and expansion of financial mechanisms were reached after 2000, allowing for tremendous incomes in the financial sector and in rich households. The crisis, finally, revealed that a significant fraction of these flows of income were based on dubious profits, due to an increasing overvaluation of securities.”
So what is missing here? In all the talk of “new configurations of income distribution”, “income flows”, and “financial mechanisms”, the two writers produce a book totaling hundreds of pages and never even once mention that total hours of labor and that the productivity of this labor have both doubled in the past fifty years. This is entirely laughable, since Marxism asserts that it uses ‘labor’ theory in its analysis. How can you argue you use labor theory if you never actually look at labor itself?
How does that work? Are we just supposed to take your word that you employ labor theory when you never actually mention labor? Do you think we are so dumbed down by phony debates in DC, we will just accept any assertion you make?
Most of the stuff I read on Marxism today seems to miss a very significant point: The entire context of the debate has changed.
These writings can be divided into two groups:
Those who continue as if nothing has changed, and
Those who state everything before was a failure.
In the first group are the Leninists, soc-dems, assorted types, who approach the problem of social emancipation more or less the way the generation immediately following Engels approached it. The second group really emerges out of the interwar period and after. It is probably easier to think about this if I just state what I am thinking here.
Capitalism develops the productive power of the total labor power of society. What Marx and Engels realized is that ultimately this improvement would lead to the reduction of necessary labor for all of society. When they realized it, this idea was in its infancy, but it became the commonsense assumption of everyone. Even Keynes, the intellectual godfather of fascism, made this assumption.
In my previous post, I explained that the wertkritik school has come to a rather startling conclusion:
“The abolition of value does not equal social emancipation”.
The argument Postone, Kurz, Flatschart and others make with regard to the critique of value is not very complicated: Materially, socially necessary labor time can be reduced without a corresponding reduction in the quantity of labor actually expended.
But, can the material need for labor be reduced to zero without the end of wage labor itself? For some ungodly reason, Postone and Kurz take the anarchist position that even in the absence of any material need for labor at all, wage labor can still exist. Okay, fine. Let’s leave that to one side for now.
This means, a number of different theorists, employing various sorts of critical analyses, have all come to the same conclusion, which has been presented in the form of a non-identity: the abolition of value is not the same as social emancipation.
To really understand the significance of the wertkritik school’s argument, it could better be stated as follows: Not all the wage labor we perform is materially necessary. The reduction of the material need for wage labor does not, of itself, lead to a reduction of the amount of wage labor actually performed. So, there is a very high probability that most of the labor we perform everyday is entirely superfluous to any need.
At this point, the wertkritik scholar simply stands there with a grim look on his face and declares solemnly: “The call for the abolition of labor does not have immediate ramifications for Marxist politics.”
Now you have to realize what wertkritik has stated: the fact that you get up every morning to an alarm clock and shuffle off to work in some disgusting cubicle for eight or ten hours a day has no ramifications for Marxist politics! And, the wertkritik school theorist proclaims, this is true even if the work you are doing is completely fucking unnecessary to you or anyone else!
Do you think they ever stopped to ask themselves: “Well, this very well might have no impact on Marxist politics, but what about the implications for the person actually performing the useless labor?” Do the rest of us have a fucking life, dreams, hopes and wants of our own, or are we just mindless fucking tools for the accumulation of capital? Apparently, it never occurs to the wertkritik school that their work might have some passing significance for cubicle jockeys watching the clock. It never occurs to these idiots that the dead space between the time you park your car in the company lot and the time you start it again to go home might be filled with something other than mindless production of surplus value.
Something, like, for instance, A FUCKING LIFE!
Instead, all we get from these asshole academics are indecipherable phrases like “negative critique”, or “the abstract and fetishized character of modern domination”.
You would think one of these assholes might just pick up some data from the fascist state and try to determine the extent to which material socially necessary labor has been eliminated and compare this with the amount of labor people are actually doing. But — NO! — that would be too much like relevant fucking work. And the last thing we want is for Marxism to be relevant to any-fucking-body’s life. Let’s just keep it as it is: an irrelevant circle-jerk among folks with eight semesters of fucking graduate-level Hegelian philosophy.
So, Wertkritik really does not have a complicated argument: it states most of the work we do is absolutely unnecessary — superfluous. But it states it in such dense and arcane language that, apparently, the message doesn’t even penetrate the brains of the handful who actually understand it.
If these fuckers can’t figure out what their theoretical effort has produced, who the fuck else is going to?
We really don’t need those assholes to pick their noses out of a fucking book long enough to understand what they are saying. Once we grasp their essential argument, it is possible to verify it without much difficulty.
And, once we do this, we will see that Elmar Flatschart is an idiot and that wertkritik has profound implications for Marxist politics.
So, let’s start with the numbers — and there are a lot of them.
At a recent conference sponsored by the Platypus group, Elmar Flatschart spoke of the most important abstraction existing in our society today, value, and stated:
“Marxism shouldn’t be understood as an identity-giving, wholesome position, which history proved to be erroneous, but should be reduced to a theoretical core that can help us to understand society, via a negative critique, even if it does not necessarily provide us with a way out. The call for the abolition of labor does not have immediate ramifications for Marxist politics.
There is no new program or a master plan for emancipation that can be developed out of the abolition of value. Rather, it can be seen as a condition of emancipation from value and the abstract system of oppression it represents. How emancipation will be achieved is a more complex story. We know what will not work: much of what the Old Left proposed as Marxist politics. A lot of that should be abandoned because, essentially, abstract domination cannot be abolished through the imposition of some other kind of direct, personal domination. If we are to critique the abstractions of the economic forms, we similarly have to target the political form itself. While Marx and Engels suggested as much by their formulation of the state eventually “withering away,” I think we need to be a lot more radical. Emancipation ultimately has to mean the abolishment of the political as well. This is contradictory in the present political situation, but we should not try to postpone this task until after the revolution. We should see the constraints and the fetishizations immanent to the political form as something we want to get rid of now.”
This was an oddly ambiguous statement, with which his two co-speakers took issue. In response to Flatschart assertion, Alan Milchman stated: “The division Elmar drew between the domain of politics and that of Wertkritik is highly dubious.” Jamie Merchant also argued against Flatschart assertion, value criticism “have certain implications for politics.”
Flatschart statement was ambiguous because it is unclear whether he is speaking about a politics after the abolition of value, or a politics arising from the critique of value. If as a literal reading of the statement suggests Flatschart means there is no politics after the abolition of value, I think he is correct. But it is odd that both of Flatschart’s co-speakers seemed to think this was not at all what he meant. They appear to interpret his statement as meaning labor theory offers no guide to action on the question of social emancipation of the individual. Continue reading “Social Emancipation and Socially Necessary Labor Time”
In the German Ideology, Part 1, Section D, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels mention the term, individual, 98 times. In each case they are not speaking of the individual as an abstraction, but the real individuals of whom society is composed. They are clear on this:
The individuals, who are no longer subject to the division of labour, have been conceived by the philosophers as an ideal, under the name “Man”. They have conceived the whole process which we have outlined as the evolutionary process of “Man,” so that at every historical stage “Man” was substituted for the individuals and shown as the motive force of history. The whole process was thus conceived as a process of the self-estrangement of “Man,” and this was essentially due to the fact that the average individual of the later stage was always foisted on to the earlier stage, and the consciousness of a later age on to the individuals of an earlier. Through this inversion, which from the first is an abstract image of the actual conditions, it was possible to transform the whole of history into an evolutionary process of consciousness.