A simpler, more elegant, route to communism

by Jehu

An increasing number of folks have been raising the question about hours of labor and the problem of what David Graeber called “bullshit jobs”. vietnamsI have spent some time on the subject in the past few months, but feel it necessary to return to the question again, since I have just come across a paper appearing to refute the idea. The paper by the bourgeois simpleton economist, Axel Borsch-Supan, purports to lay out the argument against a reduction of hours of labor. It is an interesting read because the guy, who is clearly an opponent of reducing hours of labor, thinks he can be trusted to state the case on its behalf.

And, bizarrely enough, instead of refuting the idea, Borsch-Supan actually may have ended up making an argument on its behalf.

The question, as he very narrowly defines it, is this: Can fewer hours of labor reduce unemployment? He begins the effort to find an answer to this question by setting out “the theoretical background of the debate in order to isolate the main mechanisms that might create (or inhibit) positive employment effects in response to an hours reduction. ”

However his argument against fewer hours of labor comes down to exactly one point: The amount of labor is not given as a fixed lump which can only be redistributed among a given number of workers. According to Borsch-Supan, the case for hours of labor reduction hinges on the so-called lump of labor fallacy. This alleged fallacy states there is a fixed amount of labor required for production of commodities, which can be divided among the total available workers in the market for labor power, both employed and unemployed, simply by reducing the hours of labor of the employed. If the total labor requirement of production is fixed, reducing labor for employed workers will increase the demand for the labor of the unemployed.

Of course, no one actually uses the above argument, but people who support the reduction of hours of labor are regularly accused of committing the fallacy. But this is not because proponents of shorter hours employ this fallacy — instead, the lump of labor fallacy figures in the debate simply because the opponents of reduced labor hours have no other argument on which to rest their case than to state the proponents of shorter hours of labor are engaged in a fallacy.

Having identified a straw man position as his opponent, Borsch-Supan argues the employment effect of reducing hours of labor has a fatal flaw: the amount of labor needed is not fixed.

“While the often-voiced first-round theoretical argument – less work for some must create more work for others – appears “obvious” in favor of a positive employment effect, it has several major flaws. First, the amount of labor is not given as a fixed lump which can only be redistributed. The total amount of labor demanded and supplied changes as the economy evolves, and a reduction of working time may affect this total amount of labor. Thus, partial analysis of the labor market needs to be supplemented by a general equilibrium analysis of total demand in the economy.”

Which is to say, while it might appear hours of labor are fixed, once legally mandated hours are reduced, other changes occur in the “economy” that can significantly reduce the need for labor. For example, as Borsch-Supan tells us, once the legal maximum hours of labor are reduced, the capitalist must choose between bearing the increased cost of labor or replacing a portion of his work force with machines, etc.

The so-called lump of labor fallacy runs into an additional problem: while reducing hours of labor might open up new jobs to be filled, the skills of the unemployed workers may not be sufficient to fill those positions. Useful labor is not homogenous. To give an extreme example: someone trained adequately to flip burgers at McDonald’s is not necessarily qualified to run a nuclear power plant.

Finally, according to Borsch-Supan, the proponents of labor hours reduction conflate hours of labor needed with number of people need to work those hours. Since a legal maximum on hours of labor only constrains employers, it is possible that some workers may wish to work longer than the legally mandated maximum hours of labor — they may, for instance, choose to do voluntary overtime for their existing employer or even work a second job.

Borsch-Supan’s argument against reducing hours of labor thus rests on the argument that any such reduction will have little or no effect on the rate of unemployment. But, of course, hours of labor reduction doesn’t just hinge on its employment effect: Fewer hours of labor is (in bourgeois simpleton parlance) a “good” in and of itself. If we can reduce hours of labor by fifty percent and still produce the same output as at present, who cares about the employment effect?

Employment is an important consideration  for reducing hours of labor, but it is not the only consideration in the argument — nor is it the most important consideration. Assuming six percent unemployment, if after reducing hours of labor by 50% we still have six percent unemployment, who is going to complain? The 94% of the workers who have jobs now need only work 20 hours per week instead of 40. BS makes it appear that reducing hours of labor is a failure if no reduction in unemployment is achieved when people now only have to work 20 hours a week

The core fallacy for reducing hours of labor, Borsch-Supan explains, rests on the Keynesian assumption that wages and prices are sticky — that is, the owners of commodities will try to resist any fall in wages paid for labor power or the prices of other commodities. If wages and prices are sticky, as the Keynesians argue, a legally mandated reduction in hours of wage labor will lead to a proportional increase in employment, and total worker-hours remain constant.

Or so the argument goes.

Of course, this Keynesian assumption is silly, but can the argument for reducing hours of labor only be made on the basis of an assumption that wages and prices are sticky? Further, do we have to hold to the idea that the need for labor is constant and unchanging (the “lump of labor fallacy”)? Suppose we assume the opposite case: If hours of labor are reduced, the need for labor will fall and, moreover, wages and prices will decline as well.

These two assumptions are not the least bit Keynesian — they are the assumptions of labor theory of value.

According to labor theory if hours of labor are reduced, wage and prices and the need for labor fall more rapidly. The labor theory argument is based on a simple assumption: as hours of labor are reduced, the demand for labor power will be reduced as well, because the capitalist class now has an added incentive to introduce improved machinery, technology, scientific know-how and better organization of the labor process to replace labor whenever the legal hours of labor are cut. Beginning from the opposite assumption of the “lump of labor” fallacy, we arrive at the reality that capital is compelled by a reduction of hours of labor to develop the productive forces.

This particular argument is actually 150 years old and can be found in Marx’s Capital, volume one:

“The shortening of the hours of labour creates, to begin with, the subjective conditions for the condensation of labour, by enabling the workman to exert more strength in a given time. So soon as that shortening becomes compulsory, machinery becomes in the hands of capital the objective means, systematically employed for squeezing out more labour in a given time. This is effected in two ways: by increasing the speed of the machinery, and by giving the workman more machinery to tent. Improved construction of the machinery is necessary, partly because without it greater pressure cannot be put on the workman, and partly because the shortened hours of labour force the capitalist to exercise the strictest watch over the cost of production. “

Thus, reducing hours of labor works three ways according to Marx: the performance of the workers are improved, because they are better rested; improved machinery are introduced; and the efficiency in the use of capital is increased. In fact, Marx concluded that it was the shortening of hours of labor that made England into an industrial superpower in the 19th century:

“There cannot be the slightest doubt that the tendency that urges capital, so soon as a prolongation of the hours of labour is once for all forbidden, to compensate itself, by a systematic heightening of the intensity of labour, and to convert every improvement in machinery into a more perfect means of exhausting the workman, must soon lead to a state of things in which a reduction of the hours of labour will again be inevitable. On the other hand, the rapid advance of English industry between 1848 and the present time, under the influence of a day of 10 hours, surpasses the advance made between 1833 and 1847, when the day was 12 hours long, by far more than the latter surpasses the advance made during the half century after the first introduction of the factory system, when the working-day was without limits.”

So, in labor theory, reduction of hours of labor not only accelerates the development of the productive forces, with this development of the productive forces successive reductions of labor becomes becomes necessary: it “must soon lead to a state of things in which a reduction of the hours of labour will again be inevitable.”

Which is to say, reducing hours of labor first and foremost accelerates the demise of capitalism and wage slavery — freeing up disposable time for the great majority of society.