Can We Completely Abolish Labor, Right Now (Final)

by Jehu

7. The Centrality of Labor in Marx

At the start of this series I noted that, according to Elmar Flatschart, wertkritik states the abolition of labor is not the same as social emancipation. In his view, the abolition of value is only a condition of social emancipation, but social emancipation itself is a more complex problem.

At first glance this conclusion might be seen as very pessimistic, since it implies that even in the absence of any material need for labor, the great mass of society might still be trapped in compulsory labor and the debilitating division of labor to the sole benefit of an ever diminishing group of exploiters.

Gold Coins Being Weighed on ScaleThis is not a minor point. The concept of the abolition of labor is central to Marx’s and Engels’ theory. Uri Zilbersheid calls the abolition of labor one of Marx’s most important ideas; he notes the concept is central at least in “his early writings and to some degree in his later writings”. Yet, Zilbersheid observes, the abolition of labor receives little attention from Marxists:

“the radical Marxian vision—the abolition of labour—has not gained due recognition. Marxian thought is devoted to liberating humanity from all kinds of servitude, and the abolition of labour constitutes a major aspect of this liberation.”

Zilbersheid attempts to demonstrate, in his words, why,

“At the core of the highest phase of communist society, as described in Marx’s early writings, is the abolition of labour. The more famous abolition of private property, the well-known abolition of the state, and the lesser-known abolition of the division of labour are all conditional upon the abolition of labour itself.”

This would suggest that when Elmar Flatschart argues, “The call for the abolition of labor does not have immediate ramifications for Marxist politics”, he is likely stating the central pillar of Marx’s entire theory has no consequences for communist praxis in 21st century society. The argument is tantamount to stating the abolition of both capital and the state have no ramifications for Marxist politics. Indeed, the mistake here is far more grave: if Zilbersheid is to be believed, and Flatschart appears to agree with him on this point, both abolition of the state and the abolition of capital are conditioned on the abolition of labor itself.

For Marx, says Zilbersheid,

“…private property is not a primary social fact, but rather a derivative social phenomenon, which has historically developed from a certain kind of human activity, namely from alienated productive activity. Thus, in the early phase he says that “alienated labour is the…cause of private property.” After changing the terminology he says, for example, that “labour is the essence of private property” (that private property, or exploitation, is a manifestation of labour; that is to say, it is labour that has enlarged the scope of its means, thus turning other human beings into its live instruments).”

The very idea that “no new program or a master plan for emancipation […] can be developed out of the abolition of value” implies that the socially necessary labor time required for the production of commodities can be progressively reduced without this reduction having immediate and far-reaching consequences for society.

However I have restated wertkritik’s conclusion in a way, I think, may throw light on the problem we face at present:

Not all the labor we perform at present is materially necessary.

As restated it can be seen wertkritik implies there is a constantly growing mass of labor that can be abolished immediately to make room for unprecedented free time for society. This possibility is confirmed by the efforts of some Marxist writers like Freeman and Vandesteeg, Harman, Howell, and Moseley to both define the concept of unproductive labor as well as estimate the amount, if any, of such labor in the economy. The failure of these writers to properly define and quantify wasted labor time being performed under the regime of wage labor should not in any way be taken as a sign these efforts were misguided.

I have shown empirical evidence that demonstrates over the last five decades the total labor time of society has doubled, and this labor is now 2.5 times as productive. This means there has been a fivefold increase in material wealth produced by the working class even as wages have fallen and poverty has actually increased in absolute numbers.

Unfortunately, although the literature points to the likelihood of a growing mass of unnecessary labor, how much of the labor presently expended by the working class is productive and how much is waste has never been properly defined or quantified by Marxists theorists. Since the possibility for any reduction of labor time, and consequent freeing of the working class from the division of labor and from labor itself, rests on the existence of a mass of unnecessary labor, the failure to adequately measure the quantity of unnecessary labor actually being performed has left the working class in the dark with regards to the potential already materially present to emancipate itself from labor. The emancipation of the working class from labor must be its own act, but Marxists have a role to play in revealing, so far as it is possible, the potential already materially present for this emancipation to other workers.

This defect in the critical analysis of Marxist theorists persists even though there are tools already at hand to both define and quantify with a high degree of precision exactly how much of the expended labor time of society is wasted unproductive labor time.

Employing Moishe Postone’s analysis, I have demonstrated that, in Marx’s labor theory as revived and reconstructed by Postone, superfluous labor is not the accidental result of the capitalist mode of production but is precisely the aim of capital. It follows from this that, for labor theory, the existence of entirely superfluous labor is not the exceptional case, but a fundamental feature of capital that defines its historically specific character. The question, therefore, is not whether there is a mass of superfluous labor time that can be abolished, freeing the working class from all labor, but how much of the present social labor day fits this description.

The abolition of labor is no longer simply a question of fundamental theoretical assumptions of historical materialism, it is now, first and foremost, an empirical question.

Postone shows the social labor day can be divided into labor time that is materially necessary and labor time that is necessary only to maintain capitalist relations of production. The total labor time of society must include both of these two measures of labor time: material socially necessary labor time and capitalistic socially necessary labor time. The difference between these two measures of the labor time of society is what Postone defines as superfluous labor time, i.e., labor time that cannot, under any circumstances, be employed productively by society. This labor time is no longer simply relatively superfluous (i.e., rendered superfluous to its producers), it is now absolutely superfluous, i.e., superfluous even from the standpoint of the aim of the capitalist mode of production itself.

The aim of capitalist production is always and everywhere the production of surplus value, of profit — the self-expansion of capital and the extension of the labor of the working class beyond the duration necessary to satisfy the needs of the producers. The absolutely superfluous labor time identified by Postone, however, is the extension of hours of labor beyond even the aim of the capitalist mode of production. It is labor time that can neither satisfy the material needs of the social producers nor add to the self-expansion of capital itself. This labor time, which, even from the point of view of the capitalist mode of production itself, no longer creates any value.

8. The tools provided by labor theory

How does Postone’s reconstruction of Marx’s category, superfluous labor time, allow us to define and quantify with a high degree of precision the amount of labor time presently expended by the working class that is entirely superfluous to the material needs of society? It is a fundamental assumption of the labor theory conception of money that the labor time that is socially necessary for the production of a commodity can only be expressed in the material body of a commodity that serves as the money in a transaction. At the same time, a commodity money can only express the socially necessary labor time contained in the commodity. Labor expended on the production of commodities that is not socially necessary for the production of the commodity cannot be expressed in a commodity money.

Thus labor theory provides us with an instrument already present in society to distinguish materially socially necessary labor time from superfluous labor performed solely to maintain capitalist relations of production. Labor time that cannot create value can only be materially expressed in a ‘money’ that itself no longer expresses in its material the value of commodities, i.e., a money that does not itself contain any value: debased fascist state issued inconvertible currency.

The portion of labor time expended on production by society that is not socially necessary, therefore, cannot be expressed in the form of a commodity money. If this superfluous labor is to achieve a stable continuous presence within the capitalist mode of production (hours of labor extending beyond that duration materially required by both classes), It requires an inconvertible valueless scrip issued by the fascist state that is not itself tied to any commodity money. Fascist state issued currency, once detached from the commodity for which it formerly served as a token, can be employed in transactions not only involving the socially necessary labor time expended by society, but also the additional quantum of absolutely superfluous labor time now necessary to maintain outmoded capitalist relations of production. Its usefulness consists precisely in the fact it can not vouch for its own value, nor express the value of the commodities for which it is exchanged.

The collapse of the gold standard, therefore, announced to the world that capitalist relations of production were now entirely outmoded. It wasn’t gold that became a barbarous relic in the 1930s, as Keynes asserted, but capitalist relations of production themselves. If these barbarous relations of production were to continue, the money used by society could no longer reflect the labor materially required for production.

If we measure the total labor time of society by the socially necessary labor time materially required for production of all of its needs, we get a chart that look something like this:


US GDP expressed in billions of ounces of gold 1920-2012 (BLS, Kitco)

However, if we measure the total labor time of society by the labor time required if capitalist relations are to be maintained we get this chart:


US GDP expressed in dollars 1920-2012 (BLS)

If we compare the expansion of two labor times since 1920 to each other, we get a snapshot of how the division of existing social labor day between material socially necessary labor time and capitalistic socially necessary labor time has evolved over time.


Change in US GDP expressed in billions of ounces of gold versus dollars 1920-2012 (BLS, Kitco)

The bars in GREEN is the labor time required to maintain capitalist relations of production from 1920 to 2010, the bars in YELLOW show how much of the labor expended each year would have been necessary if capitalist relation were abolished.

According to my calculations, today anywhere from 92% to 98% of all labor performed in our economy is now superfluous and can be abolished:


Estimated quantity of superfluous labor time expended in the United States 1920-2012 (BLS, Kitco)

This means, although capital has not completely abolished the material need for labor, it has so reduced it society could operate entirely on voluntary productive effort alone were it not for capitalist relations of production. The amount of socially necessary labor required at this point is so insignificant there is effectively no need for labor at all.

Even if we account for the purely capitalistic limitation on the consumption of the working class by capitalist relations of production, the greater part of the social work week can be done away with even as the consumption of the working class increased to a civilized level.

If Wertkritik is to be believed, most of the effort by fascist state economic policy today is directed toward creating the massive volumes of superfluous labor that is now required to keep capitalism alive. We assume labor is still as necessary as it was in Marx’s day, but Postone and Wertkritik analysis suggests this is not at all the case. The reason why creating jobs has become the over-riding imperative of state policy since the Great Depression is to be explained by the fact that, as Marx explained in the 1850s, that capitalism “posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary.” It is a life or death question for the capitalist mode of production that superfluous labor must constantly increase.

So this is the bizarre thing: Here we are today fighting over when people will be allowed to retire and collect Social Security or the stagnation in the wages of working class since 1970, when capitalism has already made all labor obsolete.

How fucked is that?

It is possible to see why Wertkritik runs into an impasse here: properly understood it is saying it is entirely possible all labor being performed by the working class at present is unnecessary. As an assertion, this just seems so far-fetched as to be utopian madness. So, rather than providing empirical evidence to back up their conclusion, the wertkritik school just retreats back into their books.

What Wertkritik is saying is that there is no longer any alternative; this is the issue that must be faced. It can no longer be put off. No matter the difficulty translating this conclusion into a practical program, the problem of immediate abolition of labor now directly confronts the working class?