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.
First, as a simple political reform, reducing hours of labor has no reformist content whatsoever: taken to its logical end, a demand for reduction of hours of labor already contains in itself a revolutionary demand for the complete abolition of wage labor itself.
Second, the problem of so-called technological unemployment is beginning to encounter the limits of fascist state economic management. Even bourgeois economists are beginning to admit that the problem of historically unprecedented high unemployment is likely only to get worse in the coming years owing to the steady improvement in the productivity of labor:
“Nobel prize-winning economist Joe Stiglitz has a new NBER paper out that comes to a worrying conclusion — the robots really are coming for your job. In economic theory innovation should make workers more efficient — they can produce more for less — but it comes at the cost of lower skilled jobs as fewer people are required to produce the same amount of output. “
Third, the impact of rising productivity of labor has already been felt in a decades long tendency toward stagnant economic growth and thinly disguised unemployment, which most advanced nation states are increasingly trying to bury in official statistics:
“Another interesting fact about the United States is that a surprisingly large portion of working age adults are not working, primarily because there are too few jobs to go around. This may not be obvious, because the declared unemployment rate in the United States seems low, at consistently less than 10% over a long period of time. The problem is that the official unemployment rate hides the huge number of working-age Americans who are no longer considered a part of the workforce. Currently, only 63% of working-age adults are actually working.”
Finally, with historically high levels of unemployment in almost all countries today, unemployment has assumed the form of a common condition of workers around the world. Thus, a demand for reduction of hours of labor could easily be the basis for a global movement of the working class and an issue around which to directly organize the working class in a global union that is aimed solely to convert the present productivity of labor into free disposable time for all.
However, despite the rather steady improvement of labor, historically high rates of unemployment in all countries and widely acknowledged “stagnation” of economic growth, reduction of hours of labor still faces widespread resistance among both workers and radical activists. One reason for this resistance might be found in an equally widespread misconception about how reduction of hours of labor affect real wages and the subsistence of the working class.
Does less work mean lower wages?
By far, the most damaging misconception about reducing hours of labor is that fewer hours of work will reduce the real income of the working class. The objection makes complete sense and advocates of less work seem to fall for it every time. The misconception rests on what at first appears to be a mathematical certainty: If a worker earns $10 an hours and work 40 hours a week, her total income is $400. If a law is passed reducing the work week to only 32 or 24 hours, simple math suggests her total income will fall to $320 or even $240.
The math points to a potentially fatal vulnerability in the argument for less work that, if proven to be true, virtually guarantees there will never be a successful movement to reduce hours of labor. Anyone who can add 2+2 can understand the math behind the argument and the capitalists will drive this argument home to the working class with every ad dollar the Koch Brothers can throw at it. Of all the objections to the reducing hours of labor, this is the deal-breaker; one that virtually guarantees it will never happen.
On the basis of this simple math, many folks who support the idea of less work (see, for instance, Kathi Weeks) suggest a reduction of hours of labor must be accompanied by additional measures to prevent a shorter work week from reducing the income of the working class. One measure often suggested is to offset any change in total income with a higher hourly wage. As hours of labor fall from 40 to 32, the hourly wage of the worker would rise to offset this fall — from $10 per hour to $12.50. Another idea floated by supporters of less work is that a reduction of hours of labor be accompanied by a universal basic income that cover basic subsistence.
Whether these sorts of demands for additional compensation to offset a reduction of hours of labor are realistic can be debated, but the fact that they and similar measures are coupled with the demand for less work points to a glaring vulnerability in the argument for less work: If it a large portion of the radical activists within the working class erroneously believe that a reduction in hours of labor will lead to a fall in wages, the less work movement is crippled before it has even begun.
Wages, profits and hours of labor
The widespread misconception that less work means lower wages for the worker rests on the simple math: If, wages per hours are fixed and hours are fixed, then income will be fixed. A rise in wages will produce a rise in income, while a fall in hours will produce a fall in income. The argument is seductive and even Marxists, who should be immune to it, routinely fall for it. However, there are clear empirical and theoretical reasons why this is not the case.
Time is money, but more labor time means more money in the pockets of the capitalists, not the workers: All else held equal, longer hours of labor actually only boost profits, not wages — in general, the more hours worked, the greater the profits for the capitalists. This is because the production of surplus value (profits) only begins once the worker has already reproduced the value of her wages. Since, at any level of labor productivity, value is proportional to the length of the total labor day, the longer the day worked by the worker, the greater the amount of value she can produce in excess of her wages. This is why the present crisis has seem the drive for so-called labor market restructuring. In Portugal, for instance, the government is moving to lengthen hours of labor, tax pension and extend the years before workers can retire:
“The country’s rigorous approach to labor market restructuring and various legal reforms are designed to boost productivity and economic efficiency. “The measures remain pro-cyclical, in the sense that fiscal policy is tightening as the economy weakens,” comments Marc Chandler, global head of currency strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman. The government is planning to cut 580,000 employees in the public sector, and to increase the workweek for public employees from 35 to 40 hours; contributions will also be increased, and all ministries face a 10% cut in spending. In addition, a new tax will be enacted on all but the lowest pensions, while the retirement age rises from 65 to 66.”
Most labor performed today neither adds to wages or profits: For reasons that have been explained by a number of Marxist writers, capitalism can only go so far in reducing the socially necessary labor time required for production of commodities and expanding surplus value (profits). Once it encounters this limit, it begins to generate widespread unemployment and idle capital, which, if it continued on this track, would lead immediately to the demise of the mode of production. At that point capitalism begins to create a new category of labor: superfluous labor time; labor time that neither adds to the wages of the working class nor to the profits of the capitalists. (To grasp the implications of this argument, we need only consider how the United States is able to maintain a vast network of military garrisons encircling the globe.) Many Marxist writers have noted this development, especially after 1971, but, so far as I can tell, none have realized its potential as a source of labor time that can be radically converted into free disposable time for society without touching on the material needs of the producers.
Long hours of labor undercuts wages by intensifying competition for work: Again, as most Marxists know or should know, the longer the hour of labor, the greater is the tendency for some portion of the working class to be locked out the opportunity to sell their labor power and the greater are the competitive pressures within the class as each struggles to sell her labor power. This competitive pressure adds to the divisions and fragmentation of the class and drives down wage as the productivity of labor increases. With improved machinery, one worker displaces many other workers — pushing them out of employment entirely. The competitive pressure strikes against the women and workers of color hardest, who face a long standing wall of white male supremacy. But the competitive pressure also contributes to anti-immigrant hysteria and nationalist sentiment as workers of every country are brought into closer competition over a declining pool of employment. This sort of competitive discord within the working class can only be overcome by forcing a reduction in hours of labor.
There is no downside to reducing hours of labor arising either from the direct impact on wages, the balance of competitive forces operating within and between the classes or in the massive quantity of wasted labor time available for a radical conversion into free disposable time that we can use for self-directed activity and our own self-development. Activists need to turn their attention to what is easily the most profoundly revolutionary demand of all — one Marx called “the modest Magna Charta of the working class” and the only demand capable of making communism a real movement.