Marx, labor and the problem with Kathi Weeks
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?
According to Weeks:
“Structural coercion alone cannot explain the relative dearth of conflict over the hours we are required to work or the identities we are often expected to invest there; individual consent cannot account for why work would be so much more appealing than other parts of life. No doubt our motives for devoting so much time and energy to work are multiple and shifting, typically involving a complex blend of coercion and choice, necessity and desire, habit and intention. But although the structure of the work society may make long hours of work necessary, we need a fuller accounting of how, why, and to what effect so many of us come to accept and inhabit this requirement. One of the forces that manufactures such consent is the official morality—that complex of shifting claims, ideals, and values—known as the work ethic.”
It is difficult to come to grips with Weeks argument until you realize she is insane and wants you to be insane with her. How else can I explain why she begins her book on the ‘problem with work’ with a chapter-long discussion of Weber’s protestant work ethic? How does her discussion not just erase decades of struggle for reduction of hours of labor? I can only shake my head in wonder at Weeks historical ignorance. One has to explain why hours of labor in the US are so long, so Weeks tells us this is the result of some alleged work ethic drawn on protestant religious values. And what is her source? Max Weber, who uncovered this thing he calls the protestant work ethic. Weeks never once considers an alternative to this vision even though during Weber’s time the working class agitated for less work, not more. She just swallows his fucking story as if his was the only possible explanation for present hours of labor.
I cannot imagine why someone, anyone, who read her draft never pointed out to her the struggle for the eight hour day was happening out the window as Weber penned his essays. Is her circle of readers so narrow and isolated from history, that she never even noticed that while Weber was going on and on about this so-called work ethic, millions of actual workers were in the street demanding greater freedom from work?
I get shit because I point out that academics are frauds and charlatans, but you can’t open a book without finding still another example. Even as that dick, Weber, was putting his essays on the work ethic down on paper, Colorado was being convulsed by miners strikes seeking an eight hour day. From Kathi Weeks we get Weber’s insane bullshit, while the sacrifice of the miners and the violence of the state are ignored. Somehow, we are supposed to believe the present labor day in the United States is determined by protestant religious sentiment, not state violence. How many fucking drafts of chapter one did she turn out without anyone noticing she failed to mention what Wikipedia calls, a brutal and bloody period in Colorado history?
Even as Weber’s book was being translated into English in 1930, Keynes was admitting hours of labor had to be reduced and the working class was agitating for a thirty hours week to address the unemployment of the Great Depression. This agitation spread everywhere and carried the Senate in 1937, almost becoming law before Roosevelt sabotaged the movement. How was this done? Hugo Black, chief supporter of the legislation in the Senate, was appointed to the Supreme Court and the legislation died. Roosevelt simply bribed Black with an appointment to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, William Connery, representative from Massachusetts, who sponsored the legislation in the House, died suddenly at the ripe old age of 51!
Does any of this real history appear in Weeks book? Of course not. To believe Weeks, the problem with work is the problem with conceptions of work to be found among intellectuals for whom work is a mental activity. The problem with work is not a problem with a state that, having become the national capitalist, has directed all of its policies toward imposing the longest possible social labor day; no matter that this means millions are locked out of employment and must, on this account, subsist on handouts. Weeks want us to believe the problem with work is the dumb worker’s desire to work the longest possible labor day. And, of course, she can easily find evidence for this, since the policies of the fascist state makes it nearly impossible for the worker to even take a day off not only for her own illness, but also that of her children.
As we all know, if the workers labors to the point of exhaustion, taking not even the few days allowed her by the firm, this is only because she has had a religious vision where the voice of god boomed from the clouds to tell her overwork is good.
The argument regarding labor is not made first and foremost by writers like Lenin or Fromm or Cleaver, but by the working class itself and it is decidedly against labor. The problem here is not just that Weeks ignores history in favor of a bullshit myth, but that she wrongly diagnoses the problem with work. The present work day is determined not by the working class falling for some work ethic, but a desperation borne of hunger and capitalist state violence. And this is no surprise, since, by far, the largest beneficiary of excess hours of labor is the state itself, which absorbs almost all of it and almost half of all labor performed by American workers.
Week’s big failure is that, in a chapter titled, “Marxism, Productivism, and the Refusal of Work”, Weeks actually spends her time talking about almost everyone’s take on Marx and Engels writings, except Marx and Engels themselves.
This is probably for the best, since Weeks, like most Marxist academics in the post-war period, appears to have no handle on Karl Marx’s essential argument regarding labor under the capitalist mode of production.
Someday, in the not too distant future, it just might occur to writers like Weeks that when their readers open a chapter titled “Marxism etc.”, they actually expect to see at least a passing gloss on what Marx himself wrote on the subject. (I mean, who really cares to read Kathi Weeks’ take on Eric Fromm’s take on Karl Marx’s take on labor?) It is not as though this was even necessary: Marx discussed labor extensively in his own writings and provides an extensive library of useful references for Week’s consideration beyond the cardboard caricatures she relies on to make her case for autonomist refusal.
I am certain there are people out there who care that Weeks classifies Lenin’s interpretation of Marx’s writings on labor in terms of what she herself calls “socialist modernization” (although he would have never employed that silly term himself); and although there are probably as many people out there who care that she classifies Eric Fromm under a category she labels “socialist humanism”; and although these two writers may take as their starting point two different texts written by Marx and that both of their respective texts differ also from what she tells us is the autonomists’ favorite text; I personally only turned to the chapter to see what she had to say about Marx’s writings regarding the problem with work.
Since Weeks never actually discusses what Marx wrote about labor, perhaps we can review it briefly, drawing on autonomist Marxism’s preferred text, the Grundrisse. In that fragment, Marx points to what he seems to consider the essential distinction to be made between labor under the capitalist mode of production and labor under communism. With regards to labor under the capitalist mode of production, he wrote:
“The creation of a large quantity of disposable time apart from necessary labour time for society generally and each of its members (i.e. room for the development of the individuals’ full productive forces, hence those of society also), this creation of not-labour time appears in the stage of capital, as of all earlier ones, as not-labour time, free time, for a few. What capital adds is that it increases the surplus labour time of the mass by all the means of art and science, because its wealth consists directly in the appropriation of surplus labour time; since value directly [is] its purpose, not use value. It is thus, despite itself, instrumental in creating the means of social disposable time, in order to reduce labour time for the whole society to a diminishing minimum, and thus to free everyone’s time for their own development. But its tendency always, on the one side, [is] to create disposable time, on the other, to convert it into surplus labour.”
And he characterizes labor under the communist mode of production this way:
“Once they have done so – and disposable time thereby ceases to have an antithetical existence – then, on one side, necessary labour time will be measured by the needs of the social individual, and, on the other, the development of the power of social production will grow so rapidly that, even though production is now calculated for the wealth of all, disposable time will grow for all. For real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time.”
Using the words of the anonymous author of “Source and Remedy”, Marx comes to this conclusion:
“‘Truly wealthy a nation, when the working day is 6 rather than 12 hours. Wealth is not command over surplus labour time’ (real wealth), ‘but rather, disposable time outside that needed in direct production, for every individual and the whole society.’ (The Source and Remedy etc. 1821, p. 6.)”
Under capitalism, labor is employed for the production of surplus value; while, under communism the aim of labor is the creation of free disposable time for every individual and for society as a whole. In the capitalistic mode of production, the necessary labor time of society is subordinated to the production of surplus value, while, In the communistic mode of production, the surplus labor time is converted into free disposable time for every individual and the whole of society.
Capitalism is the appropriation of surplus labor time; while communism is free time and nothing else.
Nowhere in a chapter allegedly devoted to Marxism does Weeks mark this distinction. Instead, what appears in that chapter is one after another attempts to grapple with the contradictions within labor itself — that its aim is not the needs of the members of society whose labor it is, but the self-expansion of capital. She, like most of the writers she cites, want to ‘humanize’ capitalistic labor; to free it from its inherent totalitarian character. However, she runs immediately into the contradiction that this necessary labor, precisely because it is necessary, cannot be abolished. If it could be abolished, it would not be fucking ‘necessary’, now would it? We would call it something else, because we are not imbeciles. This necessary labor, because it is necessary, can only be subordinated to our combined aims, which aims are never the labor itself.
In the capitalist mode of production, free disposable time is itself a threat to the very physical existence of the worker; it appears only in the form of the danger that she might fall into the ranks of the surplus population of unemployed workers. On the other hand, if she avoids this fate, it only means she is chained to a machine, a cubicle, or dependent for her survival on fascist state handouts. The real dilemma Weeks faces in her analysis of the problem of labor is that, within the material relations it finds itself, emancipation for the proletariat is neither to be found in labor nor in non-labor.
If the emancipation of the proletariat is not to be found in labor, nor in non-labor, we have run into a paradox that appears irresolvable. In fact, all this apparent paradox tells us is that the problem is not with necessary labor itself, but with the material relations within which the proletariat acts: in the capitalist mode of production, free disposable time for the worker is a threat to her very existence, because material relations are such that free disposable time can only exist in the form of unemployment — the worker gains free time, but is simultaneously cut off from access to the product of social labor.
In the capitalist mode of production, the worker’s necessary labor exists only to produce surplus value: capital monopolizes her necessary labor time; leaving none of it, so far as this is possible, for anything but production of surplus value. What time she experiences away from labor takes the form of hunger and want — and with this, a desperate search on her part to find new employment. The clock is ticking, and its measure is in units of inconvertible fiat held in the form of her dwindling 401k.
When real history is examined, there is no protestant work ethic; only a long bloody and brutal struggle over the length of the working day up to the Great Depression. Weeks’ insanity is not of a personal sort; it is a manifestation of a collective insanity within the working class, experienced by a class that in a matter of months went from long hours of overwork to a nearly complete collapse of employment. The working class went from struggling for an eight hour day to struggling to find any work at all — and that trauma still drives it.
How else to explain that, in Weeks’ view, the difference between Lenin and Fromm, is that Lenin, at the birth of the revolution, wanted more work and Fromm, speaking from the golden age of fascism, wanted better work? How can she take Negri’s refusal of work seriously? Is work necessary or not? If it is necessary how can one refuse it?
I can’t escape the feeling that “The Problem with Work” is a handbook for human resources managers, not a serious critical study. How else can you explain the a long history of struggle against wage labor gets mentioned in her book only in the form of Paul Lafargue’s The Right to be Lazy. Has Weeks never been to a May Day celebration? Has she never been a member of a union?
Chapter 2 of her book offers us a choice between ‘more work’ (Lenin), ‘better work’ (Fromm) and ‘refusal of work’ (Negri), and I looked at the pages in horror. How is it possible to explain what is wrong with this book to a reader who does not already know it?
Never discussed is the fact that precisely at the point where the bourgeois class admits that surplus producing labor cannot expand indefinitely (Keynes) the struggle for less work evaporates. Why did this happen? This is the puzzle Hunnicutt raises — and it is a question that never appears in Weeks’ book. Where did it go? What happened to the working class to make it suddenly discard the demand for less work?
This also marks the beginning of the modern state economic policy, with its declared aim of “full employment”. But this too never appears in Weeks’ book. She is completely silent on the state. Weeks never investigate the shifting definition of full employment and the long political struggle over what constitutes full employment. She never investigates the connection between the Cold War, Truman Administration and demand for longer hours of labor. And this, although the architects of the Cold War explicitly stated economic expansion, i.e., the expansion of wage slavery, would provide the resources necessary for military expansion.
She never asks why unions quietly dropped the demand for less work in the 1950s and 1960s. She never investigates how the state quietly altered how it measures unemployment between 1971 and 2014. She ignores the fact that industrial employment peaked relatively in 1979, absolutely by 2000 — and has been falling since. She ignores the fact that total employment (as percentage of the adult population) has peaked since the recession of 2001.
How has Weeks been allowed to reduce the Marxist critique of labor to the caricature of “socialist modernization” and “socialist humanism”?
Marx’s own criticism of labor had nothing to do with this — he argued the laborer herself would become superfluous under the capitalist mode of production. Postone, who Weeks cites at one point, make the same point in his own book. The idea that labor and the working class itself would become superfluous — i.e., that a great mass of workers would themselves become unnecessary to the production of material wealth — never appears in Weeks’ book. The desperate demand of the working class for jobs is but a reflex of the material reality that, for the production of real wealth, it is entirely redundant.
Is there a connection between the superfluity of labor and the sudden cessation of labor’s demand for fewer hours? How would we know, since Weeks has no idea these two events meet in the Great Depression; when the overworked millions, who took to the street of Europe and the United States to demand reduction of hours of labor, were replaced by millions of unemployed workers in every advanced country, who no longer demand freedom from work but were forced to beg for work — any work, even in the defense industries where the means for their own destruction were built.