“All Slaves Should Get Sundays Off”: Richard Wolff on the four day work week

by Jehu

Richard Wolff, clueless economist that he is, has even managed to fuck up a discussion of hours of labor reduction. He has written a very interesting piece in Truthout proposing a reduction of the workweek with no cut in pay. The idea is very attractive, and Wolff is a ‘celebrity’ Marxist who can give the issue wide circulation.

richard_wolff_photoIn principle I have no opposition to Wolff’s proposal, which at least raises the possibility that the present 40 hours work week was not handed down from Mt. Sinai on two tablets of stone. Wolff shows why we can set any number of hours of labor as the social norm that we want.

Unfortunately, almost from the first, Wolff mangles the discussion of hours of labor reduction in two important ways: First, by conflating his own reduction of hours of labor with several capitalist proposals to  ‘compress’ the work week into fewer days. Wolff never clearly distinguishes his proposal for a reduction of labor hours from the capitalists’ own proposal for a compression of the present 40 hours of labor into fewer days per week.

In his proposal, Wolff argues for a reduction of total hours worked from 40 hours to, say, 32 hours, 24 hours or even 16 hours. For us, this means we get to spend less time at work and gain more free, disposable, time away from any labor. The connection between our consumption and our labor is radically reduced.

However, the capitalists have come up with a number of proposals for their own “work week reduction” as well: the compression of hours worked into fewer days per week. In their proposal, the number of days worked are reduced from, say, 5 days to 4 days or even 3 days per week. But, like every agreement the capitalists propose, these proposals come with small print at the bottom of the labor contract — there is no reduction of hours worked, only a change in the way those hours will be worked.

  • In the first proposal, the worker would work the same number of hours within fewer days;
  • In a second proposal, the worker works eighty hours over two weeks in staggered alternating shifts and get a extra “free day” every other week;
  • And in a third variant, the worker works fewer hours per week, but has a longer work life — her retirement is delayed well into her 70s.

For some reason, this Wolff takes these capitalist proposals seriously and treats them as alternatives to reducing hours of labor.

Wage slavery as a “perfectly viable economic development strategy”

I think there is a very simple reason why Wolff makes this horrible error: As an economist, he positions the entire discussion of a possible reduction of hours of labor in the context of looking for a “perfectly viable economic development strategy”; which is to say, what matters for Wolff is not that wage slavery is an abomination that has to be eradicated from civilized society, but that it is a legitimate social relation having a legitimate role in production.

For some really bizarre reason, Marxists just cannot stop trying to portray themselves as better managers of capitalism than capitalists. I seriously do not understand this perverse impulse among Marxists, which seems to infect not only them but most of the Left. If Wolff is to be believed, he is looking for a “viable economic development strategy” based on wage slavery, not a path to its complete abolition. It is a perverse argument, akin to Frederick Douglas demanding, not the abolition of slavery, but that slaves should have Sundays off as a viable means of spurring US economic development in the nineteenth century.

Really, Richard, WTF is going on inside that head of yours?

Marxists have to make a critical decision if they ever want to exit their current dead end: is wage slavery the way society should be organized, or do you want to abolish it? You cannot have it both ways and you only look stupid trying to have it both ways.

Second, it this sort of stupidity leads Wolff to make self-contradictory arguments like demanding a reduction of hours of labor, while also demanding higher wages. The problem with this suggestion is that only reason the working class works is to earn wages. No one labors because “If I don’t flip these cheeseburgers no one else will.” People’s jobs are simply a means to earn cash and, because of this, they can be coerced by the threat of starvation to do things they would not otherwise do.

Getting rid of wage labor is, first and foremost, the only way to get rid of the threat of starvation hanging over our heads. However this effort is directly contradicted by Wolff suggestion we retain the connection between labor and consumption at some fixed level. If you get rid of labor on the one hand, but keep workers dependent on wages for consumption on the other hand, what have you accomplished?

Giving the capitalists a weapon to beat us with

The big problem I have with Wolff’s suggestion is that it appears to be a perfectly reasonable demand on the surface and will likely garner wide-spread support among radical activists. However, Wolff’s suggestion is dangerously misconceived for the very reason it will be politically attractive: It seems to protect the workers from the impact on wages of a reduction of hours of labor, but will only hand the enemy a very powerful weapon to employ against the wage slavery abolition movement.

Essentially, if Wolff’s suggestion is adopted by the Left, it will inadvertently provide our enemies with the argument that the workers will fall into poverty if they make any effort to reduce hours of labor. Since Wolff and most of the Left don’t really know how a reduction of hours of labor works in the case of wages, this exposes a critical vulnerability in their argument that will be exploited by the capitalists and their ideological bag-holders.

Wolff begins with the simple assumption:

Reducing hours of labor reduces the currency wages earned by wage labor.

However, this assumption conceals an important caveat: Reducing hours of labor must reduce profits long before it ever begins to reduce wages. This is because profits come from surplus value and surplus value is created by extending the duration of labor time beyond the period necessary for the worker to reproduce the value of her wages. Long before a reduction of hours of labor even begins to affect wages, it will forcibly reduce the profits of the capitalists. Thus a reduction of hours of labor leads to wages being a larger relative part of the social product.

Which is to say, real wages rise, while real profits fall.

As an economist, Wolff should already know that a reduction of labor hours must force prices to fall as well. Working less indeed leads to earning less in nominal wages; but this leads to spending less wages on commodities; and this must lead to capitalists being forced to charge less for commodities. In other words, by reducing hours of labor, you forcibly deflate nominal prices and, therefore, profits. As hours of labor approach zero, wages approach zero. Thus prices approach zero and profits approach zero.

If this were not true, there is no way abolition of wage labor could lead to the abolition of capital. Moreover, if reducing hours of labor did not work this way, there would be no material force exerted on the capitalist that compels him to add improved machinery in order to adjust to the reduced hours the working class supplied for production.

Reducing hours of labor accelerates the demise of capitalism

This is what happens when a ‘celebrity’ Marxist like Wolff dominates the attention of activists — Wolff knows next to nothing about labor theory; he just makes it up as he goes along, with no idea what the fuck he is talking about.

The law of value could, for our purposes here, be called the “law of the value of labor power”, in that total prices of commodities are determined by the total wages employed in production. As total wages fall, total prices must fall and it becomes increasingly more difficult for the capitalists to squeeze out profits from production of material wealth.

Since absolute surplus value is falling because surplus hours of labor are falling, the capitalists must compensate by trying to squeeze more surplus value relative to total hours of labor. This compels the capitalists to introduce improved technology to increase the relative surplus value squeezed from the workers.

The pressure on the capitalists to introduce improved technology in production is critical to the economic impact of a reduction of  hours of labor, because it “accelerates” the inevitable momentum of capitalist development and thus the final collapse of capitalism.

Like the typical bourgeois simpleton economist, Wolff only looks at the immediate result of a reduction of hours of labor, the fall in wages. He does not look beyond this point to see the follow-on results of this fall on profits and the impact it has on capitalist employment of labor in production itself.

Reducing hours of labor does not reduce real wages. Instead, prices will fall, profits will fall and real wages will rise.