Can We Completely Abolish Labor, Right Now? (Part 2)

by Jehu

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

economicwasteThere 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.

This is the problem Chris Harman tried to address in his 2007 paper, “The rate of profit and the world today”. Harman built on the writings of several Marxists going back to the 1970s to differentiate productive and unproductive labor. His effort was far from satisfactory. Each of the writers concerned used different definitions of what they each considered unproductive labor and arrived at widely varying estimates of the amount of unproductive labor in the economy.

According to Harman, Fred Moseley came up with a figure of about 21 million workers whose labor was wasted; while Michael Kidron believed the labor of 3 out of every 5 workers was unnecessary. By these calculations, anywhere from twenty to sixty percent of the labor time expended in the economy was pure waste, producing nothing of value.

Harman did not improve on this, but he did identify what he thought were reasons for the massive increase in the amount of wasted labor in the economy. What is interesting about his list is that Harman tried to provide us with reasons why labor tended to be wasted in a capitalist economy tied to the behavior of capitals themselves: including defending or expanding markets, financial speculation, rising managerial overhead, military expansion, expenditures to maintain social peace between classes.

Unfortunately, Harman’s reason are actually useless to us, because they don’t explain anything. They amount to a list of ways labor is wasted, not why. I think this is, in part, because Harman really had no explanation for why the waste of labor time was a systemic attribute of capitalism.

Here’s the problem: We tend to think of capitalism as an efficient mode of production as its apologist often assert. This is true so far as it goes, but it begs a question: Efficient at what?

Capitalism, it turns out, is efficient at producing surplus value, which has nothing to do whatsoever with the efficient employment of labor power. It is precisely because of its efficiency in producing profits that capital wastes labor on a massive scale and always has. Every crisis is nothing but the massive destruction of capital on a scale unequaled by any previous epoch, a destruction made necessary by inefficient employment of labor power. Crises make possible the production of surplus value by destroying ever larger quantities of existing value or forcing them to stand unused for longer or shorter periods of time.

Since Harman confuses efficiency in the production of surplus value with efficiency in the production of material wealth, he is unable to theoretically address the problem of unproductive labor under the capitalist mode of production. However, if we take as our starting point that capitalist production is the unprecedented waste of human labor, the question then becomes not why capitalism increasingly wastes labor time, but how much of this wasted labor time can be converted into free time for the great majority of society, who are presently condemned to perform it day in and day out.

4. Moishe Postone: Waste as the aim of capitalist production

The answer to this question is not provided by Harman, who never even bothers to pose it, but by Moishe Postone, who, in his book, Time, Labor and Social Domination, reconstructs Marx’s labor theory category of superfluous labor time. According to Postone, Marx takes as his starting point of analysis of the capitalist mode of production that capitalism posits ever increasing expenditures of superfluous labor time as a condition for the expenditure of socially necessary labor time. It is not so much that, at a certain point in its development, capitalism begins to waste labor time on a massive scale — rather, the case is more horrifying: labor that is not social necessary (superfluous) is itself the direct aim of the capitalism mode of production from its very inception!

As a mode of production, capitalism is only interested in labor insofar as this labor is not itself socially necessary, i.e., only to the extent it is superfluous.

Now just think about that for a minute.

Postone introduces an entirely new conception of the historical trajectory of capitalism: the constant expansion of superfluous labor time. The expansion of superfluous labor time is not an accident in Postone’s argument, it is the aim of the capitalist mode of production from its very beginning. Since, according to Postone, labor theory assumes the aim of capital is the ever increasing expansion of labor time that is superfluous to society, he provides us with a critical conception of labor time under the mode of production, where all abstract homogenous labor is split into antagonistic forms: Socially necessary labor time and superfluous labor time.

The total labor time of society must, therefore, be composed of these two categories of labor time in some proportion.

As I stated before, which portion of labor time is socially necessary and which portion of labor time is superfluous cannot be determined simply by cherry picking various types of concrete labor and segregating them into boxes labeled “necessary” and “superfluous” — if it were that easy, we would not need labor theory. We could just identify superfluous labor time and get rid of it, just like we do with waste, fraud and abuse in the federal budget.

Fortunately for us, labor theory provides a means of segregating labor times into necessary and superfluous, although it is an implicit tool. To understand this tool, we have to revisit Marx’s theory of money, which most Marxists find tedious, outmoded and unnecessary.

In Marx’s theory every commodity has a value that is equal to the average labor time socially required for its production. This value is — surprise, surprise — the socially necessary labor time of the commodity. Since, however, the socially necessary labor time of a particular individual commodity has nothing to do with how long it took for the producer to produce it, but only exists as a social average of all labor times of all producers, no producer knows what the actual value of his own particular commodity is. Value, therefore, is the dark matter of political-economy — we know it is there, but we can only see it indirectly.

In labor theory, the value of the commodity only appears visibly in the form of the money for which it is exchanged. The value of a commodity is “materially expressed” in some definite quantity of some commodity that serves as the money in a transaction. By “materially expressed” labor theory means the actual material serving as money gives visible form to the unknown quantity of value contained in the commodity.

This has to be clear: In labor theory, the only way the value of a commodity can be made visible is in the form of its monetary equivalent — there is no exception to this rule.

In the problem Postone resolves of the division of the total labor time of society into two antagonistic parts — socially necessary labor time and superfluous labor time — there is only one way to distinguish one from the other: a commodity money. Since all labor performed under the capitalist mode of production counts only as abstract homogenous labor, and since there is no way to directly distinguish what of this labor is necessary and what labor is superfluous, the only means allowed by labor theory to make such a determination is the employment of a commodity money.

To wit, GOLD.

The total social labor time of the United States performed, for instance, in one week is denominated in dollars, but these dollars have no value of their own. Without value, they cannot serve as the measure of socially necessary labor time in our economy. We cannot, therefore, distinguish between socially necessary labor and superfluous labor expended during a given period of time simply by arguing if it can be paid for with dollars it must be necessary — this is the method of bourgeois economics.

In labor theory the portion of labor expended on commodity production that counts as value must be expressed in some definite unit of commodity money. Again, there is absolutely no exception to this rule. A definite unit of a commodity money is, in turn, denominated in some definite quantity of currency that is used in a transaction in the market between buyer and seller.

The currency price of a commodity only represents the value of the underlying commodity money once we convert this currency price into some definite physical quantity of the commodity money. If that currency is not tied to a definite quantity of commodity money, the same currency price at different times will represent different values.

To make this clear, let me give an example:

In 1969, the dollar represented 1/35 of an ounce of gold, which is to say 35 dollars were pegged to one ounce of gold, while today, according to the folks at Kitco, 1392 dollars represent the value of one ounce of gold. So the amount of dollars it takes to represent one ounce of gold has increased forty times over the past fifty years or so.

Thus, in 1969, for instance, the poverty level for a family of four, according to the US Census Department was $4,462, or 127.5 ounces of gold. Today that same poverty income — 127.5 ounces of gold — commands a whopping $177,460.

By way of comparison, the official poverty threshold today is set by the Census bureau at $26,981, not $177,460 — i.e., it is set at only 15 percent of 1969’s poverty level in terms of a commodity money. This figure is consistent with the finding on average wages generally.

Is the difference between the two figures astonishing? Of course, but that is how much your wages have depreciated over fifty years. Just to keep pace with the depreciation of the currency over the past 50 years you would have to earn 40 dollars for every dollar your parents earned in 1969. Another way to say this: if income had kept pace with the depreciation of the dollar, no one would be living in poverty today.

It is impossible to understand how ruthlessly you are being exploited today by looking at dollar measures of economic activity. By the same token, it is impossible to visualize the quantity of superfluous labor time in our economy, and, therefore, the potential for a reduction or even outright abolition of labor, without employing a commodity money.

I will turn to that issue next.