Platypus Question No. 2: Is the distinction between “work” and “labor” politically relevant?

by Jehu

In the second question, the Platypus group asks whether the distinction between purposeful human activity and labor is politically relevant.

“2. A distinction is often drawn between “work” as purposeful human activity (presumably existing before and after capitalism), on the one hand, and “work” in the sense of labor in capitalism, where the worker undertakes purposeful activity for money under threat of material scarcity (typically in the form of wage labor), on the other hand. Is this distinction politically relevant when thinking about work? In a free society, would work manifest in one or both senses?”

I think this is one of the most important sources of confusion among communists: the confusion of “labor” with “purposeful human activity”: Labor has nothing whatsoever to do with purposeful human activity. As Marx explained in the first chapter of Volume 1 of Capital, in labor theory, labor is solely concerned with the production of value, not material wealth. Purposeful human activity, concrete useful labor, by contrast, is the production of material wealth, of objects required to satisfy human needs. The production of value and the production of material wealth have no direct connection between them.

Politics is an expression of labor, i.e., the production of value; it has nothing to do with the production of material wealth, but we continue to treat politics as if it can affect the production of material wealth. In politics, the only relevant human activity is the production of value, i.e., wage labor. All debate, all policies arrived at through this debate, and all measures implemented are solely concerned with the production of value.

This is important to understand, because the most common delusion is that political action can affect the production of material wealth. To actually affect the production of material wealth, we must act upon the actual material relations of production. Political action alone is not enough to accomplish this. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels warn political measures will be remarkable for their economic insufficiency:

“Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.”

This is important to state because of the profoundly conservative impact that labor has on politics, which I pointed to in the earlier answer. Purely political measures are concerned with the production of value; such measures are entirely insufficient to address the latter issue — they will require a succession of additional measures. For instance, a reduction of hours of labor or the raising of the minimum wage has the effect of reducing the profits of capital without adding to material wealth. But profit is itself the motive for production within the capitalist mode of production.

Thus, by reducing profits, employment must be reduced. The measures that reduce profits make further steps along these lines necessary.

To give a contemporary example: If the movement to increase the wages of fast food workers succeeds, a very large number of fast food establishments will go bankrupt. These establishments can only deliver an average rate of profit on the basis of the lowest possible wages and benefits. The bankruptcy of establishments within the fast food industry will accelerate, capital will flow out of the sector and into sectors where an average rate of profits can be realized and the industry itself will soon cease to exist.

Obviously, a large number of fast food workers will lose their jobs — this is the threat the capitalist hang over the heads of the fast food workers:

“Accept the poverty wages we pay you or else.”

Does this scenario suggest no effort should be made to raise the wages of fast food workers? Should we be cowed by the threats of the capitalists? Of course not. If anything, we need to lay down our marker: if you fast food capitalists cannot pay us a decent wage, you have no reason to exist as a capitalist firm. Not only will we drive you out of business, wages will rise even as you are driven out of business and by driving you out of business.

The effort to increase wages in the fast food industry will necessitate further efforts to address the loss of employment resulting from higher wages. But these additional efforts will themselves further reduce the profits of the capitalists. It can be seen from this example that even the most minimal reforms only makes sense in light of a longer term effort to abolish wage labor.

Moreover, from the point of view of the abolition of wage labor, more ambitious reforms can also be understood for their real significance: Child labor laws and Social Security, for example, set limits on when a worker’s lifetime of labor begins and ends; shorter hours of labor set the duration of labor within this lifetime cap; guaranteed wage and the minimum wage set the minimum level of the workers’ consumption during this working time; and national health systems and the like increasingly separate the labor contribution of individuals from their right to access the common means of consumption.

All told, these sorts of reforms can be understood as more than mere reforms: they set limits to the system of wage labor itself. Taken to their logical end, they threaten the entire system of wage slavery.

But this is true only when the reforms are taken to their logical end. As ends in themselves, short of the complete abolition of labor, they make no sense at all, since they undermine the system of production for profit and reduce employment. The reforms are vulnerable to the charge made by capitalist politicians that they impede the expansion of employment, i.e., impede expansion of the system of wage slavery.

Our answer to the apologists of capitalism is that we fully intend to impede the expansion of the system of wage slavery, because this system has no relation whatsoever to satisfaction of the needs of the working class.