First, let’s begin with some pertinent facts about existing political relations in the form of the Socialist Equality Party’s political influence among the working class. I do this in the form of election returns for that party since 1984:
As expected, a mostly white Grand Jury declined to indict the murderer of Michael Brown, who was gunned down without provocation on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. This is in keeping with a long history of racist mob violence that has been directed at the black working class by their white counterparts dating back at least to the early 19th century. As Justice Taney argued in his Dred Scott decision nearly 160 years ago, the grand jury decided that African-Americans were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
The time for mere political protest is past, we are confronted by the necessity to overthrow the regime of white supremacy and the capitalist mode of production which daily, hourly, constitutes this white supremacy and provides the material basis for its continuing existence. Like any difficult venture, this effort must be undertaken based on a sober examination of how white supremacy is constituted by capitalist relations of production in order to demonstrate why nothing short of the abolition of the capitalist mode of production itself will put an end to white supremacy. I hope to demonstrate this very thing in the essay that follows and thus provide radical activists with material for agitation for the complete overthrow of capitalism and white supremacy.
Here is a comment on my blog post that was posted to Reddit’s socialism subreddit:
REDORDEAD: hmm yes in the age of austerity, in which an out of control falling rate of profit is causing massive reduction in work hours, automation of labor and mobilization of the world reserve army of labor the solution is the reformist demand for shorter work hours. what century are you living in?
The comment was fascinating to me, not just because I have heard it before, but also because I had no idea what it means. Reduction of labor is reformist? How so? On what basis does the redditor make this charge? Intrigued, I asked for clarification: “Can you tell me what is reformist about demanding the end of wage labor?”
REDORDEAD: Thats not what you’re demanding. You’re demanding a reduction in the working day which capitalism already accomplishes through the rising organic composition of capital. Even Marx point out in Capital Vol. 1 that the movement for the 8 hour work day saves capitalism from itself by regulating the coercive laws of competition which cause the abuse and long-term exhaustion of the working class.
That’s not to say it can’t be a revolutionary demand given the right economic conditions, almost anything can be linked to the revolutionary demands of socialism given a mass party and disciplined mass line. But it seems worse than most, especially given the conditions today. Not sure why it’s significant at all, though it is time to think about tactics and less about theory.
This clarification had a lot of features in common with another comment posted to Reddit regarding the same blog post:
“It is thoroughly reformist. Your whole strategy is to simply fight for shortened work hours, increased hourly wages, etc. Nothing here about the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the proletariat… Congratulations, you’ve discovered economism.”
It appears that, in the thinking of these two critics, the reduction of hours of labor isn’t revolutionary because it doesn’t involve the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the proletariat, a direct demand for socialism, and a political party dedicated to this demand that practices a method of leadership that seeks to learn from the working class.
And this argument has some validity and much historical accuracy: both the ten hours day and the eight hours day were won without any fundamental alteration in the capitalistic nature of political relations. I am fascinated by this argument because, when all the dogmatic assertions are set aside, it suggests real material changes in the mode of production aren’t real without the right politics.
The problem with this reasoning is that capitalism is the production of surplus value; self-expanding value, etc. In their debates with the anarchists, Marx and Engels were stubbornly insisted on the primacy of economic relations over political relations.
Moreover, Marx almost never discussed capital without reiterating his definition of the mode of production, as he does, for instance, in chapter 15 of volume 3 of Capital:
“The purpose of capitalist production, however, is self-expansion of capital, i.e., appropriation of surplus-labour, production of surplus-value, of profit.”
Now, what has to be grasped is that, this old fart had already spent two fucking volumes of Capital defining and discussing capital yet he wants to emphasize — again — what he means by the term. In other words, after having already spent two volumes of Capital and 15 chapters of a third volume discussing capital, Marx feels the need to again reemphasize exactly what capitalism is!
Since capital is the production of surplus value, and since the production of surplus value varies with the length of the working day, how can the reduction of hours of labor be economism? It really can’t be economism and no amount of micro-sectarian ranting can make it economism. So, what is intended by activists who slap that label on reduction of hours of labor? What is intended by folks who call reduction of hours of labor reformist or economism?
I really think it is meant to draw attention to the fact it doesn’t necessarily involve the dictatorship of the proletariat, the association of laborers. People who make that charge really are trying to say I am neglecting the need for association of producers. I really have no answer to this charge. I just wanted to open my ears and for once understand why folks keep saying it. Implicit in this charge is the view that any measure, no matter how far reaching its implications, is a mere “reform” unless it is linked to the political rule of the working class.
This sort of view may in fact be valid for any measure you can imagine — except reduction of hours of labor. To understand why, simply think of a reduction of hours of labor carried to its extreme limit: hours of labor equal zero. Can capitalism exist on this basis?
Now, the argument might very well be that we can’t get to zero with a capitalist state — but that is a completely different argument. That is an argument that has nothing to do with the measure itself, but with the resistance of the capitalists and their state. Since the folks running the show today have always resisted less work for the producers, I don’t expect them to suddenly have a change of heart. Their resistance, however, has nothing whatsoever to do with reduction of hours of labor itself. They will just as viciously fight against higher wages, basic income or any other measure that appears to threaten the appropriation of surplus labor.
The difference, however, is that no matter how high wages go, they will never create communism; no matter how many food stamps you hand out or how high you raise the minimum wage or how good your health care system is — none of this can lead to communism. Because none of these measure touches on the heart of the problem: Labor itself.
However, reduce hours of labor to zero — and you will have communism before you ever even reach zero. The reduction of hours of labor is not like any other reform because no other reform touches on the critical role labor plays in the mode of production.
You can nationalize private property all day long; replace the existing state with an association of producers; or turn money into worthless labor chits — none of these measures directly touch on labor itself. Reduction of hours of labor alone can do this. The logic of my argument follows directly from Marx’s definition of capital as the “appropriation of surplus-labour, production of surplus-value, of profit.”
This is the problem we face, the conceptual obstacle post-World War II Marxism seems unable to surmount: How can the proletariat work out its own emancipation without turning back to the failures of 20th century political parties? How can the working class continue to focus on the seizure of state power, when the development of the productive forces themselves — expressed both in the form of globalization and its attendant neoliberal ideology — are undermining the very capacity of nation states to implement sovereign management of their own national capitals?
The political parties of the 20th century were based on the concept of what is today called accelerationism by some. This strategy is stated simply in the Communist Manifesto:
“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.”
The vision Marx and Engels evoked in this passage is that of a political power held in the hands of this class who basically would do what capital has itself done over the last 170 years: create the material conditions for communism. Going back to the political parties of the 20th century is not only impossible, it is unnecessary.
If Marxist writers like Postone, Kurz, Hudis, Harman, Kidron, Mohun, Sheikh, Tonak, etc. are correct, capitalism has already converted the largest portion of the labor day into superfluous labor time. At this point the proletariat need only to complete the process: convert the superfluous labor time into free disposable time for themselves. Marxists often assert that capitalism, even if it generates its own collapse, is incapable of creating a communist society; yet, they have never once been able to describe what this latter act of creation consists of.
What is it that only the proletariat can accomplish? It certainly is not creating the material condition for communism — according to Marx in Capital, volume 3, capital itself does this without any assistance from proletarian political rule.
“Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital. This is just the way in which it unconsciously creates the material requirements of a higher mode of production.”
So, what can the proletariat do that the bourgeoisie cannot? Since of all classes in modern society, the proletariat alone gains nothing by expenditures of unnecessary hours of labor, it can convert the surplus labor time of society into free disposable time for all.
For all of its “anti-capitalist” credentials, the radical Left has long ignored the need for a radical reduction of hours of labor, the only social movement that can directly bring an end to capitalism all by itself. Reducing hours of labor should be an easy issue for the radical Left to organize around since it has four things going for it that aren’t within easy reach for any other social movement.
I am going to pull out a short portion of Peter Hudis’s book, Marx´s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism — roughly pages 124-133 — in order to examine how Marxists address some interesting questions explored by Marx that are increasingly relevant for our own time. Of course, such a short excerpt by no means is representative of Hudis’s book and this examination is not meant to be a review of the book itself. Rather it is my own curiosity about the issues raised in Marx’s so-called ‘fragment on machines’ which plays a role in many Marxist debates.
Was Marx engaged in wishful thinking??
Michael Heinrich, for instance, dismisses this section of the Grundrisse as an example of Marx’s reaction to an unexpected period of political calm. Marx was expecting the mild depression of the 1857-58 to produce a new revolution, says Heinrich, and this expectation colored his analysis. He argues “In the Grundrisse, the theory of crisis bears the stamp of the expected ‘deluge’ that Marx wrote about in his letters.” Peter Hudis also makes an argument along the same lines:
“No thinker, not even one as great as Marx, is immune to the circumstances in which his or her ideas are composed; and the Grundrisse was composed in a quiescent political period in Europe in which the working class was not exactly storming the heavens.”
Both writers, each for his own reason, seems to be trying to discredit or dismiss at least some part of this fragment but in a rather queer way: Although the writers each offer evidence that Marx was wrong in his prediction of a revolution in the 1857 depression — which, by the way, never appears in this fragment — they each note this error only in order to take aim at his much more significant and substantial conclusion: capitalism was headed toward a breakdown in production on the basis of exchange value.
The argument made by both writers seems to be: “See, Marx was wrong about this political prediction, so he was probably off in his analysis of the capitalist mode of production as well.”
Here are some more notes on Kathi Weeks’ book, “The Problem with Work”. I cannot say it is a review of the book, because, frankly, I could not stomach reading it past chapter 2. In my opinion, the book is a waste of time. This, I believe, is a shame, because I really think she attempted to make an argument for a movement to reduce hours of labor. However, her attempt is so flawed, it would have been better if she had not tried.
To be honest, I have no idea why Weeks began her book with a lengthy discussion of the so-called “Protestant work ethic”. When was this “ethic” anything more than a myth story through which the bourgeois class satisfied itself that its non-labor was “earned”? What possible purpose did she think was served by this chapter?
I have been spending some time reading Kathi Weeks, “The Problem with Work”, and find myself unable to get beyond this sophomoric statement in her introduction:
“I focus on the demands for basic income and shorter hours for two reasons. First, like the demand for living wages and others, they represent important remedies for some of the problems with the existing system of wages and hours. A guaranteed and universal basic income would enhance the bargaining position of all workers vis-il-vis employers and enable some people to opt out of waged work without the stigma and precariousness of means-tested welfare programs. A thirty-hour full-time work week without a decrease in pay [my emphasis] would help to address some of the problems of both the underemployed and the overworked. The second reason for focusing on these demands—which I think distinguishes them from many other demands for economic reform, including the demand for a living wage—is their capacity not only to improve the conditions of work but to challenge the terms of its dominance. These demands do not affirm our right to work so much as help us to secure some measure of freedom from it.”
I am not going to argue this passage characterizes the whole of her book, but I find it bizarre that a Marxist like Kathi Weeks considers a demand for a 30 hour week utopian. She seems to have no clue that there is a relation between hours of labor, on the one hand, and wages and prices, on the other. Moreover, she never mentions the connection between hours of labor, competition among workers and racism, misogyny, anti-migrant sentiments.
Coupling the demand for a six hour day with a demand for no decrease in wages or a demand for basic income actually shows why Marxists secretly fear the demand for fewer hours of labor is utopian: If there is the slightest danger the subsistence of the working class will fall if hours are reduced, no worker will ever support it. A very large section of the working class lives hand to mouth at a level where they would be homeless and hungry within a month. Another section would be in the same position within a couple of months, once they have exhausted the meager savings.
What compels the working class to sell their labor power is that they cannot live without doing this. But Weeks implicitly “admits” in her introduction that a reduction of hours will have a negative impact on their income, that it will further reduce their subsistence. How are you going to sell this “utopian” demand to the working class? Do you tell them that being idle, homeless and destitute is an improvement on their current position in society?
The problem I face in this response to @sushi_goat is how to answer without this becoming just another instance of dueling Marx quotations, which serves no useful purpose. I made my argument citing certain quotes that, I think, clarify my position. @sushi_goat pointed to instances where, it could be said, Marx and Engels reject my view. However, since both sets of quotes come from Marx and Engels, even where they appear to contradict, I assume they don’t — Marx and Engels were not that sloppy.
I want to address several issues raised by @sushi_goat that are very closely related to my understanding of the characteristics of the working class. He raises points that I think are of great importance for understanding how the working class is responding to this crisis.
Even though Jehu’s article about me has next to nothing to do with what I discussed with his minions on twitter today, I see it fit to reply.
When I leaned more toward anarchism, I found Jehu to be fascinating – as much of his stuff I understood, that is. But as I read a lot more of not only Marx and Engels, but of Lenin and Kautsky, I found that Jehu seemed to suffer from a case of Extreme Confirmation Bias – the way he quotes the Marxists text seem odd, and sometimes, the sections he quotes do not state what he claims it states, and look completely different in context. Coupled with some…. “odd” use of language, such as referring to The State (any state) as “Fascist”, his writing of theory is at once dense and hard to understand, and at the same time all to simplistic and generalizing. Do not be fooled, there is an inherent logic, but this is the logic of Jehu, and not Marx and Engels.
Sushi_goat has accused me of bastardizing Engels’ “Socialism”.
(“I am Jack’s hurt feelings.”)
Of course, this is not the first time my interpretation of that text has been challenged; and I don’t feel the criticism is out of place, since it challenges a long established mainstream Marxist view. In the mainstream Marxist view, the capitalist class is the enemy of the proletariat, whose rule must be overthrown by the latter. However, in Engels’ “Socialism”, the capitalist class is explicitly characterized as ultimately superfluous to capitalism, while the state becomes the direct exploiter of labor power that is actually overthrown by the working class.
Almost no Marxist accepts my view of Engels’ remarks, since it implies bourgeois politics itself no longer serves as a path to communism once the state has replaced the capitalist class as direct exploiter of labor power. My interpretation, therefore, challenges the entire notion of classes, class struggle and the struggle for communism as Marxists view it.
Since my interpretation directly challenges the whole of accepted Marxist dogma on this point, it should receive a complete argument, which I have yet to provide. So I am going to do that briefly in this post. I do it not because it makes a difference, but to show how little of historical materialism Marxists actually understand.
If Marx and Engels were right, communism is not a theory but the real movement of society; so, theoretical differences have absolutely no impact on the process. Thus. it likely does not matter if I am right or Sushi_Goat is right, because the process does not depend on either of us being right. Hence, this review of Engels’ “Socialism” only intends to establish what Marx and Engels actually wrote, not “who is right”.