The single non-reformist reform that can end capitalism within months, not decades
The problem of unemployment has been addressed from two different angles by activists: the guaranteed job for everyone who wants one and the basic income guarantee to provide every worker an income above the poverty level whether he or she can find a job or not. Both schemes have their advocates and some activists even advocate both ideas together.
The problem with both idea separately or in tandem is simple: No one can explain how either reform gets us where we want to go: not simply the end to unemployment, but the complete abolition of wage slavery — to end unemployment forever as the Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of the working class.
It can’t be overestimated how important a job is in a society where few have any means to access the means to life except their capacity to work, the sale of their labor power. And it cannot be overestimated how important it is that with a job or without everyone must have some form of income if they are not to starve.
Nevertheless having a job and and adequate income is by no means the aim of our struggle. An employed and/or well compensated slave remains a slave — a mere object of economic forces over which she has no control and which no organization can give her control. Social emancipation means more than a guaranteed job or income — in the end it has to mean emancipation from wage labor itself.
And this is where both the guaranteed job or the guaranteed basic income fails miserably: no one can explain how we go from a society of wage slaves subordinated to capital to a society of self-directed individuals. As reforms, however attractive they appear, a basic income or jobs guarantee are dead end reformism.
Is there a path that avoids this reformist cul-de-sac? It is a problem Andre Gorz raised in his discussion of non-reformist reforms — reforms which however initially limited, ultimately tend to transform “the system”. We can also think of them as measures which while not aiming at the immediate social emancipation of the working class must ultimately result in just such emancipation
Reducing hours of labor as means for ending unemployment
One measure that I think fits this description is the progressive reduction of hours of labor. The problem of reducing labor time can be broken down into at least three phases: In the first phase, the goal is to put an end to unemployment and to bring those workers back into the labor force who have been forced out by improvement in the productivity of labor. With nearly 22-25% hidden unemployment in the United States, this means hours of labor could be reduced by at least as much.
Table B2 of the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows average hours as of May 2014 worked is now about 34.5 hours per week. This ranges from a high of 43.8 hours in construction to a low of 26.1 hours in the leisure and hospitality industry. A 25% reduction of hours of labor would reduce the average labor time to about 26 hours per week, i.e., on the level of employment hours in leisure and hospitality. This reduction of hours could be enforced by requiring that employers pay double, or even triple, the normal hourly wage for overtime — or a similarly prohibitive fee to the worker.
Since unemployment is the result of improvements in the productive capacity of labor, the reduction of hours would not be a one-off event. As productivity improved, hours would have to be periodically reduced to prevent the emergence of an unemployed population of workers. Thus, of itself, reducing hours to maintain zero unemployment must eventually lead to abolition of labor.
Reducing hours of labor as a means of getting rid of unnecessary labor
In the second phase of getting rid of labor, the goal is to eliminate unnecessary, unproductive employment of labor. This expenditure is estimated by labor theorists to be as large as 49% of all labor in the economy. According to Simon Mohun:
“Unproductive labor amounted to about 42 percent of employment in 1964, and increased to a peak of around 49 percent in 2003, falling back to 47.5 percent in 2010. So the proportion of unproductive labor was generally increasing over time (most markedly in the 1980s).”
With an average hours worked estimated at 34.5 hours per week according to the BLS, reducing hours of labor to eliminate all wasteful, unnecessary labor in the economy amounts to at least another 17 hours reduction. By itself, in other words, reducing hours to squeeze out the wasted labor time in the economy by itself would mean a reduction of hours from 34.5 hours per week to 17 hours per week.
However, unlike in the case of reducing hours of labor to absorb the unemployed population back into the labor force, reducing superfluous labor time means shifting employment from unproductive labor to productive labor with a consequent adjustment in total hours of labor in various sectors of the “economy”. It would involve eliminating some jobs of the presently employed who are locked out of productive employment, but not out of employment altogether.
This shift will largely hit the state sector of the “economy”, since this is the only sector able to function without producing any value at all — think, for instance, of the NSA employee who has a job reading your email. In general, the state does not produce commodities and its expenditures are not the result of a previous sale. Instead, as Mohun explains, the state expenditures are financed by taxes and debt. State sector expenditures are, in other words, financed out of the surplus value squeezed from the productively employed workers.
Reducing unnecessary hours of labor is deflationary
Reduction in unproductive labor expenditures in the state sector, however, does have a very big impact on the costs of production generally and the cost we pay for commodities in the market. A growing mass of unproductive labor amounts to a growing mass of costs of production that do not result in additional output. These costs are borne by the prices of every commodity you buy in the market.
Since unproductive labor enters into the costs of production, a reduction of unproductive labor has the effect of reducing prices. A fall in labor time of 50%, accomplished by a reduction of unproductive labor, will have a corresponding effect on prices. However, to the extent improved productivity and lower prices increased the market for the product of labor, this would not be reflected in an increase in the unemployed population.
With phase 1 and phase 2 reductions of hours of labor we have fallen from 34.5 hours of labor to just over a single day labor per week. With less than 9 hours of labor per week, we have eliminated all unemployment and almost all unproductive labor in the economy. Moreover, the reduced labor time in both categories has reduced the total costs of production of commodities.
Reducing hours spurs improvement in the productivity of labor
The third phase of a reduction of hours of labor directly addresses profit. So long as there is a profit for the capitalists, the hours of labor of the workers are too long. By reducing hours of labor the capitalist is forced to introduce machinery, technology etc. to conserve on the direct expenditure of labor. This introduction of improved machinery further reduces the labor time required in production of commodities. By reducing its own labor time, therefore, the working class forces the capitalists to abolish the remaining need for labor at an accelerated pace.
The reduced costs of production made possible by a reduction in the necessary labor being expended in production and by improvement in the productivity of labor have to make their way into prices of commodities sold in the market. Prices fall because the total labor time of society falls. This means that even as less labor is being performed by the workers, their real wage is rising. In this regards it does not matter that nominal wages — paid by the hour — might fall since the real purchasing power of wages — what those nominal wages can buy — are rising.
Adding up the compound effect of reduction of hours of labor
Here is the thing: the three phases I just laid out do not in fact appear successively but operate simultaneously. Reduction of hours of labor of the employed to provide work for the unemployed at the same time reduces the total hours of unproductive labor and forces the capitalists to introduce improved machinery to conserve labor. This is because a reduction in hours of labor reduces the surplus value produced during the labor day and consequently the rate of profit and state expenditures.
Thus, all three effects of a reduction of hours of labor operate simultaneously and together as hours of labor are reduced. The same measure taken to provide a job to all the unemployed by reducing the hours of work of the employed also progressively abolishes labor, capital and the state together.
The Left has long sought a way to fight for non-reformist reforms — reforms that in and of themselves have revolutionary implications. Reducing hours of labor to address the profound employment problem is the sole means by which such a non-reformist reform can be achieved.
It is a reform that of itself carries the implication of abolishing wage labor merely by additional measures along the same line and requiring no other action than to be carried to its logical end. Although it does not aim directly at abolition of property, it abolishes property; although it does not aim directly at abolishing the state, it must of necessity end in the abolition of the state; and although it seeks only to end the unemployment of the surplus population of workers, it can only do this by means that, at the same time, progressively put an end to wage slavery itself.
Reduction of hours of labor is a powerful weapon in the hands of the working class for its emancipation. This is why Marx called reduction of hours of labor the modest Magna Charta of the working class.