Andrew Kliman on David Graeber and The “Post-Work” Society

by Jehu

I am going to spend some time comparing the approaches of Andrew Kliman and Robert Kurz to the problem of abolishing labor. Andrew Kliman’s contribution to this discussion is “Post-Work: Zombie Social Democracy with a Human Face?” and is presented in the form of a critique of the writers, John Quiggin, Peter Frase, Chris Maisano and, in particular, David Graeber’s essay on “bullshit jobs”. While Robert Kurz’s contribution is “The Lost Honour of Labour” — a critique of orthodox Marxism’s view of labor itself, of which Kliman’s critique can be considered an example.

Mhi-AndrewKlimanBriefly stated, the difference between the two labor theorists can be summarized as follows: For Andrew Kliman a reduction of hours of labor is not compatible with the capitalist mode of production. For Kliman then, only with socialism does it become possible to take advantage of technology to reduce labor for the great mass of society.  While for Robert Kurz, communism itself is not possible within the epoch of labor.  It is, from Kurz’s point of view, impossible for socialism to exist so long as the great mass of society labors.

It follows from the above that on the basis of Kliman’s assumptions, communism is impossible according to Kurz. While, on the basis of Kurz’s assumptions, abolition of labor is impossible according to Kliman.

In Kliman’s opinion the recent emergence of the idea of a post-work society is, in first place, merely an attempt to revive social-democracy. In the second place, the idea of a reduction in hours of labor under capitalism show “a serious misunderstanding of how capitalism operates”. To demonstrate his point, Kliman discusses France’s experiment with a 35 hour work week under the Mitterrand government.

Kliman confesses he was excited by the effort of the Mitterrand government at the outset:

“I was very excited about it at the time. In coalition with the Communists, Mitterrand’s Socialist Party came to power in the spring of 1981, promising rapid economic growth and reduced unemployment.”

This was to be achieved by such measures as a wealth tax, increased tax rate on higher incomes, nationalization, higher wages and capital controls. Additionally, hours of labor would be reduced without reduction in wages and both fiscal and monetary stimulus would be applied. The measures were an underconsumptionist’s wet dream and, according to Kliman, a spectacular failure:

“These are the sorts of “transitional” measures that folks like Quiggin and Maisano dream about. But they just didn’t work. They turned out to be a transition to nothing but “socialist austerity” and the French Socialist Party’s abrupt turn to free-market economics a couple of years later.

Despite the stimulative policy and the reduction in working time, economic growth remained very weak and the unemployment rate kept rising. Indeed, outside the government sector and those sectors of the economy dominated by state-owned monopolies, employment fell by almost 4% between 1981 and 1984, while the number of hours worked fell by more than 8%. And inflation kept rising even as it was abating in most other industrialized countries, which is something an export-dependent economy like France’s could ill afford.”

The enlarged state sector aside, employment fell, hours of labor fell even more abruptly, prices rose, capital flight ensued, exports fell, the currency had to be devalued, both investment and profit fell. Rather than producing rapid economic growth and reduced unemployment, Mitterrand’s government’s measures produced what looks like that peculiar form of depression known as “stagflation”.

According to Kliman, Mitterrand’s measures failed because the measures rested on erroneous assumptions about how the mode of production works. In particular he points to the Kalecki idea that profits will increase if the state pursued full employment and higher wages:

“Above all, the new post-work advocates evince a similar failure to appreciate the centrality of profit to the capitalist system. In his piece “Against Jobs, For Full Employment,” Frase quotes and endorses the following bit of wisdom from Michał Kalecki, the co-founder of “Keynesianism”:

under a regime of permanent full employment, the “sack” would cease to play its role as a “disciplinary” measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow. Strikes for wage increases and improvements in conditions of work would create political tension. It is true that profits would be higher under a regime of full employment than they are on the average under laissez-faire, and even the rise in wage rates resulting from the stronger bargaining power of the workers is less likely to reduce profits than to increase prices, and thus adversely affects only the rentier interests. But ‘discipline in the factories’ and “political stability” are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the “normal” capitalist system.”

Kliman’s response to this silly argument by Kalecki is pretty much dead on:

Come again? Profits are going to be higher even as discipline in the factories is eroded and strikes break out all over the place? Kalecki is often identified as a Marxist economist, but he seems to have been clueless about how profit is created.

However, the big problem with Kliman’s argument here is not that he dismisses the silly argument made by Michal Kalecki, but that in its place he makes an argument that flies in the face of historical experience. Until around the Great depression, the industrialized countries did have falling hours of labor and higher wages combined with at least an increased mass of profits. And they held to this pattern for decades in many countries not just for a single government in France.  The mode of production is supposed to expand without any state intervention at all. Why was it not growing in 1981? The question clearly does not hinge on the level of wages nor hours of labor alone. The question Kliman needs to answer is why what even he admits is the ‘normal’ operation of the capitalist mode of production was no longer working.

Kliman explains to the reader why he thinks the measures adopted by the Mitterrand government could not work, when he should have explained why expansion of the national capital required any state intervention at all. In labor theory, the autonomous logic of capital is already given as the self-expansion of capital. However in the example of the Mitterrand government, we see social-democrats promising “rapid economic growth”, i.e., expansion of capital. And, according to the Socialist-Communist platform, this expansion of the national capital was to be driven, not by the autonomous logic of capital, but by state measures.

How is this to be explained?

Well, for one thing, the idea capitalism can expand forever on its own is not true. What we assume to be the ‘normal’ operation of the mode of production never was assumed by Marx and Engels to continue forever. Employing labor theory Engels predicted the state would be forced to become the national capitalist. Which means, at a certain point, the further operation of the capitalist mode of production would be dependent on the state. Moreover, as Engels explains, this was only one option for the way this crisis could be resolved — the other being the conquest by the proletariat of political power.

The problem faced by Mitterrand’s government is relevant for us today, because we have just gone through a political crisis that partially paralyzed Washington and the commonsense prediction about this crisis is that “economic growth” will be constrained owing to it. The question raised by that crisis as well as 1981 France is not whether the Mitterrand measures were correct or not, but why they were necessary in the first place?

Kliman clearly is absolutely correct in his dismissal of Kalecki’s argument and those who rely on it. But this in no way exhausts the discussion. It is clear that for Kliman, as Elmer Flatschart says of the various Marxists schools,

“Most orthodox Marxist takes (on crisis) are […] too limited in their analytical scope. They usually exhibit a form of economism or structuralist blockist thinking that cannot explain the logical interrelatedness of different spheres of societal segmentation.”

This economism makes itself felt in the absence of any critique of the state itself and its role as manager of the national capital. And this absence occurs despite the fact Marxists already have at hand a clear path of analytical attack indicated by Engels and Marx.


One of the problems Kliman runs into here (but not his only problem) is that he thinks he “knows” what labor is. Really, don’t we all “know” what labor is? Labor is such a fundamental category in labor theory, you would think we had this thing down cold. On the basis of this alleged knowledge Kliman declares the reduction of labor to only be possible under socialism. Kurz didn’t really think Marxists had a good grasp of this category at all — in fact he thought Marxists know very little about it. Kurz looked at what we call labor and said, ‘My God, socialism is completely incompatible with labor!’. In the abbreviated form of a densely argued section of his essay, Kurz, like Postone before him, shows us how little Marxists actually fucking know about labor.

Kurz’s account of labor explains why he arrives at very different results in his analysis of labor. While Kliman makes the argument that no reduction of labor can occur under capitalism:

“The Mitterrand government’s policies failed because they were based on a serious misunderstanding of how  capitalism operates. Unfortunately, similar misunderstandings underlie recent advocacy of post-work society, which proceeds as if the goal can be achieved within capitalism, by making the latter into something it’s not.”

Kurz emphasizes communism is not even remotely possible until labor has been entirely done away with,

“No socialism of any kind is possible within the horizons of the ontology of labour, which is to say that the commodity form of social reproduction can only be overthrown together with “labour”. This, however, is just as unthinkable for the typical conception of socialism of the old workers movement as it is for its bourgeois antagonist.”

In Kliman’s argument, the error of the post-work advocates is that they think labor can be abolished under capitalism, while for Kurz the deeper error of Marxists like Kliman is contained in the perverse idea any sort of socialism can coexist with labor. Thus, in Kurz’s argument, labor is overthrown together with capitalist relations of production.

Kurz’s difference with Kliman hinges on the historical specificity of “labor” under the capitalist mode of production, which he, unlike Kliman, actually takes pains to uncover before delivering his verdict. In Kliman’s criticism of Graeber and others, “labor” as a category within labor theory is something that can be distinguished from “capital”. It is possible, therefore, to ‘overthrow’ capital and its autonomous logic at once, while labor only gradually withers away — so to speak.

In Kurz argument, however, labor is defined in its historically relevant form for us as ‘capitalist labor’, a specific form of value producing labor. He takes care to distinguish this specific historical form of labor from the interchange with nature itself. This labor, the real subject of Kliman’s argument, although, apparently, he doesn’t realize it, is abstract homogenous labor, labor as an end in itself.

Says Kurz,

“It is important that such an identification of the concept of labour in general with abstract labour in the form of the commodity should be more clearly explained, since such identification makes an overcoming of the commodity and of money within the ontology of labour impossible.”

According to Kurz, “the Marxism of the old workers movement” theoretically conflates abstract homogenous labor with the interchange with nature. As Postone had already shown, this abstract homogenous labor is the proper site of the critique of capital. The critique of capital is not carried on from the standpoint of labor, but is a critique of capitalist labor itself. To put this in simple language, “Marxism of the old worker’s movement”, reduces the communist movement of society to a political struggle. Marxism, in other words, argues not for the end of capitalist mode of production, but only for the end of the capitalist. This provides the whole of the basis for Marxism’s and Kliman’s approach to the question of hours of labor:

“The latter could only imagine the extension of “free time” upon the basis of “labour”. Labour appeared as something authentic, and free time as that which is derivative and inauthentic.”

In this context, we can evaluate Kliman’s assertion that disposable time can only appear in the contradictory forms of unproductive leisure and increased consumption: i.e., in “the form of reduced work-time rather than more consumer goods and services”. The idea disposable time for the great majority of society could, of itself, become the mode for the reproduction of society is dismissed. Thus, according to Kliman, ‘after the revolution’, “individuals choose the form––less work or more stuff––in which they personally benefit from technological progress”.

(When I read Kurz’s take on the Marxist treatment of labor, I am reminded of a statement made by Stalin in 1950 or so, that once the Soviet Union achieved some definite level of output, the Soviet State would introduce the six hour day.)

Kliman’S dismissive response to Graeber article on bullshit jobs is basically that Graeber has zero idea of how capitalism works. But Kliman’s objection can be restated: Graeber and others advocating post-work, although they may not realize it, aims to bring down capitalism. In other words, Kliman, even if he is entirely correct, is only criticizing Graeber for asking the one question that must call into question the entire capitalist mode of production.

What’s up with that, Andrew?