Can We Completely Abolish Labor, Right Now?

by Jehu

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.

arbeitmachfreiBut, 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 can.

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.


1. Characteristics of the social work week

Between 1964 and 2012 total hours of labor in the United States (the social working week) doubled.


Figure 1: Social Working Week 1964-2012

This expansion of total hours of labor occurred even though individual average hours, over the same period declined from almost 39 hours to just under 34 hours.


Figure 2: Average Individual Hours of Labor 1964-2012

According to figures supplied by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, total hours of labor in the economy doubled because the total nonfarm payroll in 2012 was 229% of what it had been in 1964.


Figure 3: Total Nonfarm Payroll 1964-2012

So, by 2012, we have more than twice as many people working twice as long as in 1964.

Although individuals worked on average fewer hours in 2012 than they did in 1964, more people entered the labor force during the same period, driving up total hours of labor. (The data does not include the workers released from agriculture during this period. So it is impossible to say how that influenced the problem of working hours. Washington is notorious for not including agriculture in its labor force data.)

Different sectors of the economy saw very different changes over that period:

In goods producing industries, hours of labor and employment is almost unchanged — from 40.3 to 41.1 hours, and from 19.7 to 18.4 million workers. Employment in industry peaked at 25 million workers in 1979 and has been falling since, while hours peaked in 1997 at 41.1 hours. Roughly stated then, all material production for a much larger population in 2012 takes about the same time as it did in 1964.

The increase in labor time occurred, not in the production of material goods, but in two other areas: the so-called service sector and the state. Hours of labor in the services sector in 2012 grew to 258% of the level in 1964, while state employment in 2012 grew to 197% of the 1964 level. Although average weekly hours fell in the services sector from 37.5 hours in 1964 to 32.5 in 2012, total employment increased to almost 300% of 1964. Similarly, as average hours fell for the entire economy, employment in the state sector increased by 225% between 1964 and 2012.

By 2012, total hours of labor in goods producing industries have fallen to 75% of what they were in 2000: most of this with the onset of the 2009 crisis. Unlike the period between 1964 and 2000, both state sector employment and service industry employment has been stagnant since 2000. While industrial employment has been in a long-term slide since 1979, the state and services sectors have ground to a halt only since 2000. This means all three sectors have stopped growing, while the collapse of industrial employment has accelerated.

Industrial employment struggled throughout the 1980s before turning up in 1992, only to finally collapse from a new peak in 2000. Interesting enough, industrial employment was extremely unstable during the 1970s crisis, but managed to grow overall between 1970 and 1980. I find this interesting because I believe the 1970s was a full blown depression, at least on the scale of the Great Depression. Despite being a period of depression industrial employment expanded.

It is an odd inversion that industrial employment expanded during the 1970s depression, but fell precipitously during the Reagan recovery. By 1992 industrial employment had fallen below its 1970 level. The Reagan period was definitely not ‘morning in America’ when it comes to industry, which only began to recover after 1992. Between 1979 and 1992, industry shaved 12% off employment. Even with the 12% collapse of industrial employment during the Reagan years, overall employment grew by 20% during that period. The state sector increased its employment by almost 17% under Reagan’s anti-“big government” regime. The biggest expansion, however, was in the service industry, which increased by 33% during the Reagan regime.

This shows the interesting differences between the depression of the 1970s and the present depression (which began in 2000, not 2008). In the 1970s depression, industrial employment increased by 9%, services increased by 35%, and the state sector increased by 29%. While the expansion of employment was uneven, employment in all three sectors nevertheless increased in the middle of a depression. By contrast, in the depression since 2000 industrial employment fell by 25%, services increased by only 7.5% and the state sector increased by only 5%.

Overall, total nonfarm payroll growth during each of the two periods looks like this:


Figure 4: Employment Growth, 1970s Depression versus 2000s Depression

Okay, enough numbers for now.

2. Abstract homogenous labor

In the previous section, I looked at the division of the labor day into its three parts: industrial, services and the state. The industrial portion of the labor day has been declining since 1979, and both the services and state sector have been stagnant since 2000. The result is that the overall labor day peaked in 2007 at 4.7 billion hours, fell sharply, and has not yet recovered. (See figure 1)

Although I divided the hours of the labor week into three sectors — industrial, services and state — in reality this is a false division. From the point of view of the mode of production, there is only a single homogenous expenditure of abstract labor. The sum of labor expended in a single week counts as the expenditure of a single social laborer composed of all the individuals participating in economic activity. In this sense, there is no industrial or services or state labor employment as such, but a single mass of expended labor, with a duration of one week. Likewise there is not labor expenditure of an industrial, service or state employee, but only the expenditure of a single social worker encompassing all the employees of all industrial concerns, service companies and the state with all of its many subdivisions. The particular expenditure of an individual employee on a given task counts only as an expenditure of the labor of the social producer of some duration of abstract labor.

I emphasize this because our very notion of labor undergoes a transformation with the capitalist mode of production. Labor in the capitalist mode of production is already no longer the act of individuals, but a directly social act and to be grasped as such. The very manner in which data is compiled by the fascist state assumes certain material conditions that no longer exist: private labor carried on individually and only becoming social through exchange. With directly social labor, however, the various acts of concrete labor performed by each individual employee counts only as the definite expenditure of abstract labor by a single all-encompassing social laborer.

Moreover, the idle time of any laborer within this single mass of abstract labor time counts as time lost (wasted) for the social producer. Unemployment is not just a loss to the individual concerned, it counts as the waste of the productive labor time of the social producer. For the social producer, unemployment is as much of a waste as would be an interruption of production owing to a power outage or flood. That this interruption of labor arises from the laws of capitalist production, and not an ‘act of god’ or failure of a piece of machinery, in no way matters. From the view of the social producer, a loss resulting from a portion of the work force being idled is the same as that produced by a flood or a breakdown of a critical component of an assembly line.

By the same token, the labor of the social producer is aimed at the reproduction of the material requirements of the mass of individuals composing it. The labor of the social producer is the living process of self-reproduction of the material premise of its own existence as a social laborer. This is no different than in the case of the individual private laborer of earlier times, whose activity is the reproduction of her own individual material premise. The diversion of the activity of the social producer from reproduction of its material premise — for example in munitions production or on a battlefield — has the same effect as in the individual case. One can no more argue the social producer is improved by this diversion than can be argued in the case of the individual producer. The wasted labor time of the social producer does not add to the reproduction of its material premise and, therefore, constitutes waste. Moreover, this waste is no different in quality than the waste found in the form of unemployment, a power outage or a flood. That this form arises from state policy, the second from the laws of capitalist development, the third as the result of the breakdown of a critical component of production and the fourth as an ‘act of god’ does not matter.

As is the case with labor itself — that it is no longer labors of individuals, but a single abstract labor of a social producer — so it is with waste in all forms: these are no longer particular forms of waste, but the waste of abstract labor time of a single social producer. There is, on the one hand, the activity of the social producer, the material reproduction of its conditions of life, and, on the other hand, various activities of the social producer and forcibly idled time that do not in any way add to reproduction of its conditions of life.

We have an additional problem now: Since, under conditions of capitalist production, we are not dealing with labors of any particular sort, but only abstract homogenous labor, and, therefore, labor stripped of any peculiar identifying characteristics, not only are we not able to differentiate between industrial, service and state employment, we cannot even assess the extent to which the labor expended in any of these forms is superfluous to society and can be abolished. The characteristics of abstract social labor are not at all the same as the characteristics of individual concrete labors of specific sorts. So we need a method of making this differentiation — a tool, ready at hand, which will allows us to uncover the extent to which the wage labor presently expended has no material social necessity.

I will turn to this problem next.