Ten Questions from Platypus on the Politics of Work: A response

by Jehu

The Platypus group is sponsoring a series of discussion entitled the “Politics of Work”. The first discussion was held at the University of Massachusetts, with other discussions planned at various locations.

According to the group:

It is generally assumed that Marxists and other Leftists have the political responsibility to support reforms for the improvement of the welfare of workers. Yet, leading figures from the Marxist tradition– such as Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky– also understood that such reforms would broaden the crisis of capitalism and potentially intensify contradictions that could adversely impact the immediate conditions of workers. For instance, full employment, while being a natural demand from the standpoint of all workers’ interests, also threatens the conditions of capitalist production (which rely on a surplus of available labor), thereby potentially jeopardizing the system of employment altogether. In light of such apparent paradoxes, this panel seeks to investigate the politics of work from Leftist perspectives. It will attempt to provoke reflection on and discussion of the ambiguities and dilemmas of the politics of work by including speakers from divergent perspectives, some of whom seek after the immediate abolition of labor and others of whom seek to increase the availability of employment opportunities. It is hoped that this conversation will deepen the understanding of the contemporary problems faced by the Left in its struggles to construct a politics adequate to the self-emancipation of the working class.

To focus the discussion, the organizers provided three quotes from various writers and ten questions. I thought I would try my hand at answering the questions myself, since they seem to me to be highly pertinent. The questions will each be addressed in a separate blog post.

1. The issue of labor is a profoundly conservative force in contemporary politics

Question 1: How do you characterize work and employment as a political issue in contemporary society? What is wrong with unemployment? And/or what is wrong with work?

To really answer this question, it is important to step back and ask what is the significance of labor (not “work”) for society in general. No matter how one might characterize labor and employment as a contemporary political issue, politics is itself wholly determined by labor. In part, the difficulty assessing labor as a political issue stems from the fact that when speaking of labor as a political issue, we are speaking of the political expression of labor.

What is expressed in politics is the contradictory nature of labor itself in contemporary society. We can characterize that contradictory character this way:

  1. Up until the present, labor has determined all other relations within society.
  2. Labor is going away — it is being abolished by the development of the productive forces, by industrialization of the labor process.

Our contemporary politics reflects the fact that, for both classes, labor is necessary, yet entirely superfluous. Without labor, there is no capital; thus capital has an interest in maintaining labor above all else. Yet, just as clearly, without labor there is no laborer — the majority of society, laborers, cannot exist as a class without it. As a political issue, i.e., as a matter of conflict between the two classes, there is no real conflict between them on this issue. Both classes as classes want nothing more than to maintain the relation of wage labor and capital.

This is a profoundly conservative tendency within contemporary politics that makes even the notion of abolition of labor unthinkable. In politics, there is no constituency for abolishing labor, nor can there be since all politics is conflict between classes. No matter their conflict over marginal political issues with the capitalists, the laborers have no interest to assert on this question. The very idea there can be a political movement to abolish wage labor is incoherent.

Given premises of historical materialism, we would expect that, as a political issue, labor is profoundly conservative of existing relations. Concepts, like “unemployment”, “job creation”, “full employment” etc. express the profoundly conservative character of contemporary politics. For example, the term, “unemployment”, suggests disposable time, i.e., time away from labor, is, as Robinson put it, worse than wage slavery itself. I think we first have to grapple with the problem that the politics of labor is profoundly conservative; then we can ask how to deal with this.

We have not yet accepted that a politics of labor itself aims to conserve existing relations.

One thing that might be a clue here is that I cannot find a single instance where Marx speaks of unemployment in Capital. To be sure, in chapter 25, he does speak of “the constant transformation of a part of the labouring population into unemployed or half-employed hands.” But “unemployed” in this context means “not employed by capital”; while “unemployment” means “not able to sell one’s labor power”.

This is not just a matter of semantics.

Capital, when it is not actually employed as capital, is still money — it is always ready to enter circulation as capital. Yet, as capital develops an increasing portion of this newly produced capital cannot, under any circumstances, become real capital — it is rendered superfluous to the production of surplus value.

Suppose unemployed labor power of the industrial reserve at first has this character – not employed, but ready to enter circulation, to be drawn down. What then is “unemployment” as opposed to “unemployed”? Keynes argued that “unemployment” is “due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.” This is not Marx’s industrial reserve: i.e., a reserve army ready to be called into active service producing surplus value. This is, rather, a population of workers permanently locked out of employment, rendered superfluous to production of surplus value.

Marx, in volume 3, refers to this population, not as the industrial reserve army, but as “a growing surplus of population”, that exists side by side with “an excess of capital”. The distinction here is that this population cannot enter the labor process because it is superfluous to the production of surplus value. What we now refer to as “unemployment” is the population of workers who are utterly cut off from productive employment of capital. Moreover, this mass is far, far larger than what would be defined as unemployed in bourgeois economics. Being cut off from “a job” and being cut off from “productive employment” are not the same thing. To put it simply: you can have a job and still be cut off from the productive employment of capital. To give an example, every soldier has “a job”, but is not employed productively, i.e., does not produce surplus value.