Platypus Question No. 3: Overwork and unemployment

by Jehu

In question 3, the Platypus group asks about the twin social diseases of overwork for some and unemployment for others:

“3. If the widely observable phenomenon of overwork and unemployment is a necessary feature of capitalist society, why and how is this so? What kinds of social necessity, in the present organization of the world, do you take to be underlying this phenomenon?  Then, given your understanding of the nature of this necessity, what would it mean to radically transform it?”

This question, as it is posed, is completely misleading; it is imprecise. First, from the point of view of the working class, what constitutes overwork? Asked this way, it is obvious that the premise of the capitalist mode of production is the overworking of the laborer, her unpaid labor. Her necessary labor — labor required for her existence — is only made possible by the performance of labor that is superfluous to her. “Overwork” is, from the perspective of the worker, not unusual, but the very premise of her physical existence. Moreover, from the perspective of the capitalist, the overworking of the worker to the point of exhaustion is a premise of his existence.

For both classes then, there is no such thing as overwork, but the normal operation of the mode of production in which the worker  performs some portion of the duration of her labor gratis. From the perspective of both classes, this unpaid portion of the worker’s labor appears as the product of capital, not the worker. Which is to say, “The company makes a profit”. The worker never even recognizes that this profit is simply the unpaid portion of her own labor. And this is true (really true) for the capitalist as well — the profit arises from his genius and industry.

Insofar as the worker is not physically overworked to the point of sickness or death, there is no overwork within the mode of production. There is only the normal working day. The duration of this labor day is determined:

  1. by the needs of the capitalist;
  2. by the needs of the worker;
  3. by the conflict between the two classes; and
  4. by the needs of the relation as a whole.

This fourth factor is never examined in the discussion of overwork. There is indeed a struggle between the two classes over what will constitute the duration of labor. However, the duration of labor is not simply determined by this conflict, but also by the needs determined by the relation as a whole. The needs of the relation as a whole is manifested in opposition to the needs of both classes — it imposes itself on the two classes.

To give an example: During the Great Depression, the duration of the working day was defined by the needs of the capitalist class based on the performance of unpaid labor by the workers. However, based on this need the contraction of “the economy” continued for four years. To end the contraction the state had to step in and “add demand”, i.e., stimulate an increase in the duration of labor through fiscal policy. This policy was overwhelmingly opposed by the capitalist class and never really accepted until World War II. It was only during World War II that Keynes’ argument that government could itself increase the duration of labor was generally accepted.

Even in the present crisis the extension of the working day beyond the material requirements of production for profit is not accepted. Why is this?

Simple: From the point of view of the individual capitalist, Roosevelt’s actions made no sense. The capitalist produces additional surplus value by reducing the labor time required for production of a given mass of individual commodities. Roosevelt’s policies, however, proposed to increase profits by increasing the labor time required for production of that quantity of commodities. Which is to say, Roosevelt proposed to increase profits by extending the working day beyond its materially necessary limit.

From the view of the individual capitalists, the extension of the working day beyond its necessary limit had to result in a disaster. Is this not exactly what produced depressions and bankruptcies? But Roosevelt’s argument won out because the increase in the duration of labor was not an increase in the total duration of productive labor. It is an increase in the duration of labor only insofar as this additional labor was expended unproductively — in first place on world war.

Roosevelt showed, as Keynes surmised, that the duration of labor could be extended beyond material necessity if this additional hours  produced no value. But capital is, in first place, the production of value — and more, the production of surplus value, of profit. A capitalist firm can no more extend the duration of labor that is unproductive than it can cease being capital, cease its self-expansion. To extend hours of labor beyond what is materially necessary requires the intervention of the state for the very reason  that it does not function as a capital. The state is not a producer of surplus value, but a consumer of surplus value produced by capitals.

To speak of “overwork” in this context — i.e., in the context where the overwork of the laborer is already given — can only mean overwork even in relation to the material requirements of the capitalist mode of  production, in relation to the material requirements of the production of surplus value — which is to say, “overwork” from the view of both classes within capitalist society.

Since the problem of overproduction presents in the form of a surplus population of workers who cannot, on any account, find productive  employment, the intervention of the fascist state to increase the duration of labor beyond what is socially necessary appears as a  measure “on behalf” of the working class — as a form of state socialism. In fact, the labor of the working class is now not simply unpaid, but also adds nothing either to the production of material wealth of society nor to the accumulation of capital. This “socialist” feature of contemporary society is what I mean by fascism.

This is a historical stage of capitalist development, implicit in labor theory, which was uncovered by Moishe Postone in his book, Time, Labor and Social Domination:

“Until this historical stage of capitalism, according to Marx’s analysis, socially necessary labor time in its two determinations defined and filled the time of the laboring masses, allowing nonlabor time for the few. With advanced industrial capitalist production, the productive potential developed becomes so enormous that a new historical category of “extra” time for the many emerges, allowing for a drastic reduction in both aspects of socially necessary labor time, and a transformation of the structure of labor and the relation of work to other aspects of social life. But this extra time emerges only as potential: as structured by the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution, it exists in the form of “superfluous” labor time. The term reflects the contradiction: as determined by the old relations of production it remains labor time; as judged in terms of the potential of the new forces of production it is, in its old determination, superfluous.” (Postone, p. 375)

Theoretically, at least, the problem of “overwork” — more accurately, superfluous labor — has already been explained by Postone. However, his observations have not been integrated into the thinking of communist activists. Activists appear ignorant or unconcerned about the implications Postone’s argument has for the abolition of wage slavery. Postone has made clear that, even by the material requirements of the capitalist mode of production, hours of labor are too long. Even assuming, as labor theory does, capital is solely concerned with maximizing profits and has no other concern, the duration of labor has to be shortened.

The possibility exists at present for an unprecedented historical circumstance: nonlabor time — disposable time — for the vast majority of society.