Platypus Question No. 5: Overwork, unemployment and the state

by Jehu

5. What remedies exist to address overwork and unemployment?

For the fifth question, the Platypus group asks what might be considered an adequate remedy to overwork and unemployment.

“5. Historically, the left has sought to remedy the problems of overwork and unemployment, through various means: full employment; a guaranteed minimum income regardless of employment; and/or shorter working hours for those employed. Which of these, if any, do you consider to be adequate responses, and how, if at all, should the Left pursue them?”

The question itself is evidence of a fallacy that is deeply embedded in Left politics, a fallacy Platypus seems to explicitly accept in their introduction to the questions:

“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.”

The statement, as formulated in the Platypus introduction, makes it appear as if full employment of the available labor power of society itself threatens the mode of production. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: In the capitalist mode of production, employment of labor power is essential to the production of surplus value. It is absolutely not true that an unemployed mass of workers is required for the production of surplus value. Rather, the case is the opposite: It is the production of surplus value which produces a mass of unemployed workers.

The Left would have us believe that full employment is some utopian society never to be achieved within the mode of production. In fact, the Soviet state economic mechanism was every bit as much devoted to the production of surplus value, yet the society had no significant unemployment. The German Nazi state surprised the world in 1936 by announcing it had achieved full employment on the basis of its military build up program. The United States, during World War II saw unemployment fall almost to zero. Full employment of labor power is not only possible, it is the necessary result of the drive to maximize the production of surplus value. It is only on the basis of this premise that we can explain why the goal of full employment became the over-riding concern of politics and the state after the Great Depression.

The production of surplus value is a direct function of the duration of the social working day. This social working day is nothing more than a mass of productively employed workers times the average number of hours of labor. Maximizing the production of surplus value means maximizing 1. the average hours of individual labor and 2. the total mass of labor power employed. How, on this basis, can it be asserted that full employment threatens the system of employment?

The statement really asserts is that full employment is not, somehow, the actual and real goal of fascist state policy. As proposed by some, this argument suggests the fascists don’t really want full employment because full employment, if it were ever realized, would reduce competition among workers. The attenuation of competition among the working class would facilitate increased organization of the workers and aid in their struggle to raise wages. This is the sort of thinking that makes Kalecki so popular among the Left right now. [In fact, we find the opposite is true: the decline of unions has occurred side by side with states setting the aim of full employment.] (See comments below)

As the recent debt ceiling fiasco showed, without active fascist state intervention, there would be massive unemployment. The fascist state is not preventing full employment but is spending massive sums precisely to the maintain and increase the current level of employment. Estimates are that the 2009 Obama stimulus cost anywhere between $185,000 to $4.1 million for each job actually created. All told, since 2008, Washington has run almost $6 trillion of new debt just to keep the economy from falling off the cliff. Additionally, the Federal Reserve Bank is currently pumping newly created currency into asset markets at an annual rate of a trillion dollars to prevent nominal devaluation of asset prices. A brief survey of economic policy literature demonstrates that the problem of stimulating “full employment” is the principal concern in Washington at present. If, despite all this, there is still considerable unemployment, this is not to be explained by the lack of effort on the part of the fascists.

It is obvious that capital needs no state measures to increase the productive labor time of the working class, i.e., to increase production of surplus value. The aim of capital is nothing more than the constant increase in the production of surplus value, of profit. The problem, however, is that, given the development of the productive forces at present, the increase in production of surplus value now requires an ever larger increase in superfluous labor time, i.e., in labor time that produces nothing. It is only this latter increase that falls under the category of specifically state measures aimed at full employment. All measures aimed at promoting “full employment” in this sense of that term are intended only to increase the hours of labor during which nothing is produced at all — and this is the special concern of the fascist state.

There is no way “to remedy the problems of overwork and unemployment”, without explicitly recognizing the role the state plays in actively extending the hours of unnecessary labor in society. Which is to emphatically insist fascist state economic policies are directly and fully responsible for both overwork and unemployment. There would be no overwork nor unemployment if the state were not at present expending countless trillions of dollars to maintain hours of labor that are too long given the present level of development of the productive forces.

In support of my assertion, I offer the words of Larry Summers, former chief economist in the Obama administration and former Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration. At the nadir of the 2008-2009 crisis, in response to a question from a reporter about why the Obama administration did not propose a reduction of hours of labor, similar to measures used in Germany, to address unemployment, Summers stated it was the policy of the Obama administration to force people to work longer hours rather than reduce hours of labor:

“I think [the Obama administration] got the Recovery Act right. The primary objective of our policy is having more work done, more product produced and more people earning more income. It may be desirable to have a given amount of work shared among more people. But that’s not as desirable as expanding the total amount of work.”

To be clear: You cannot fix overwork and unemployment by political means when the state is itself responsible for the overwork and unemployment. Overwork and unemployment are not naturally occurring conditions, they are actively being manufactured by fascist state policy. To remedy the problems of overwork and unemployment, you have to stop the fascist state from creating them.

It would do us well to remember fascist state policy is designed to address so-called “technological unemployment”, as defined by Keynes in the following words:

“At the same time technical improvements in manufacture and transport have been proceeding at a greater rate in the last ten years than ever before in history. In the United States factory output per head was 40 per cent greater in 1925 than in 1919. In Europe we are held back by temporary obstacles, but even so it is safe to say that technical efficiency is increasing by more than 1 per cent per annum compound. There is evidence that the revolutionary technical changes, which have so far chiefly affected industry, may soon be attacking agriculture. We may be on the eve of improvements in the efficiency of food production as great as those which have already taken place in mining, manufacture, and transport. In quite a few years – in our own lifetimes I mean – we may be able to perform all the operations of agriculture, mining, and manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been accustomed.

For the moment the very rapidity of these changes is hurting us and bringing difficult problems to solve. Those countries are suffering relatively which are not in the vanguard of progress. We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come – namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour. ”

To support the production of surplus value, the fascist state has to find a “use” for the laborers that have been displaced from industry. These workers have been cut off from all productive employment by the progress of the productive forces themselves — they no longer have a place in the productive employment of capital.

However the workers who are now cut off from productive employment is not the concern here, but a sideshow. The real concern of the fascist state is to maintain the longest possible hours for the workers who remain employed productively. No matter the size of this declining productively employed fraction of the total labor force, the surplus value produced by it is maximized by maintaining the longest possible labor day. Even if only fifty percent of the total labor force can be employed productively in an 8 hour day, keeping this fifty percent working for the full 8 hours possible will maximize the surplus value produced, even if the remaining mass of workers must spend their time doing “bullshit jobs”.

The function of state policy in relation to the unproductively employed mass of workers and the unemployed is determined by the requirements of maintaining the productively employed workers for the longest possible duration of labor. The problem at present is that every increase in the productive expenditure of labor — i.e. labor that produces surplus value, requires an even larger increase in wholly unnecessary labor — i.e., labor expended unproductively.