A dagger aimed at the heart of capitalism

by Jehu

The beauty of reducing hours of labor is that it appears to be an insignificant reform, when, in fact, it has the potential both to lay the foundation for communism and destroy capitalism. The significance of the conflict over hours of labor is as deeply obscured by capitalist relations of production as the role labor plays in the production of surplus value. However, anyone familiar with Marx’s reasoning, would understand why he called the struggle for reduction of hours of labor, “the modest Magna Carta of a legally limited working day.”

In chapter 15 of volume 3 of Capital, Marx makes this very important point:

“The rate of profit does not sink because the labourer is exploited any less, but because generally less labour is employed in proportion to the employed capital.”

Over capital’s lifetime there is a progressively diminishing proportion of living labor employed in the production of commodities. It is this diminishing proportion of living labor to dead labor that forces the fall in the rate of profit. And this fall itself, has widespread implications for the way capital works: producing the concentration and centralization of capital,  while shedding both excess capital and excess workers. For Marx, the process leading to the crisis begins not with an accumulation of unsold commodities, but with the diminishing living labor content of commodities.

We can compare this to the crisis theory of the bourgeois simpletons, for whom a crisis begins with the production of the wrong sorts of commodities. As explained by Steven Kates, that argument looks something like this:

“Production could rise without limit so long as producers were producing what demanders wanted to buy. Recessions would however occur  when miscalculation occurred, that is, when the structure of demand was different from the structure of supply. If the goods which  happen to have been produced did not coincide with the goods which consumers and investors wished to buy, some good would remain  unsold. It was from miscalculations of this kind that the classical theory of recession was built.”

Kate’s argument seems to be consistent with what some Austrians call “malinvestment” (although I am not an expert on that school).

Thus, in classical economics before Keynes, economists held that depressions were caused by miscalculations like those cited above, while Marx laid the cause of depression to the continuous reduction of the living labor content of commodities by capitals. Which is to say, for Marx it was the revolution in the productive forces and the constant improvement in the productivity  of labor that produced crises. And this revolution also produced a growing mass of superfluous capital and growing population of unemployed workers. Capitalism, as Marx described it, was always shedding both excess capital and excess workers.

Of course, in Marx’s time, much of this excess was again picked up in newly formed offshoots of production — new markets for existing  commodities or new commodities that satisfied old or new needs. However, Marx predicted this was only a temporary solution: Sooner or later, capitalism would run into what Marx called absolute overaccumulation: a point where all additional capital invested  would yield no additional profit and might even reduce profits. (At least that is my reading of Marx — as far as I can tell, no one else seems to agree with my reading of the text.)

In any case, unlike bourgeois simpletons, Marx argued crises were not the result of bad investment decisions, but improving productivity of labor. Which is startling, since capitalism, if nothing else, is about constant introduction of improved technology to produce goods more profitably. The very methods that capitalists introduced to increase their profits were producing the crises that drove them to bankruptcy.

Marx’s insight had revolutionary (in the political sense of that term) implications, because he noticed an interesting correlation: When limits were put on the length of the working day, the entire process of shedding capital and labor accelerated. While capitalism constantly reduced hours of labor and drove itself into periodic crises, the enactment of limits on the working day, had the remarkable effect of forcing capital to introduce improved technology to reduce the living labor content of commodities at an accelerated rate.

Marx explains what happened when limits were placed on the working day in a quote which I will cite in its entirety:

If the general extension of factory legislation to all trades for the purpose of protecting the working-class both in mind and body has become inevitable, on the other hand, as we have already pointed out, that extension hastens on the general conversion  of numerous isolated small industries into a few combined industries carried on upon a large scale;  it therefore accelerates the concentration of capital and the exclusive predominance of the factory system.  It destroys both the ancient and the transitional forms, behind which the dominion of capital is still in part concealed,  and replaces them by the direct and open sway of capital; but thereby it also generalises the direct opposition to this sway.  While in each individual workshop it enforces uniformity, regularity, order, and economy, it increases by the immense spur which  the limitation and regulation of the working-day give to technical improvement,  the anarchy and the catastrophes of capitalist production as a whole, the intensity of labour, and the competition of machinery with the labourer. By the destruction of petty and domestic industries it destroys the last resort of the “redundant population,”  and with it the sole remaining safety-valve of the whole social mechanism. By maturing the material conditions,  and the combination on a social scale of the processes of production, it matures the contradictions and antagonisms  of the capitalist form of production, and thereby provides, along with the elements for the formation of a new society,  the forces for exploding the old one.” (My emphasis)

In short, Marx argued, limits on the working day, matured the contradictions inherent in capitalism and drove it to its demise.

This citation, coincidentally enough, is also detailed in chapter 15 of Capital, but this time, we find it in volume 1 of Capital, not volume 3. So, in chapter 15, volume 3 of Capital, we see the impact on capitalism of the constant reduction of living labor in production and in chapter 15 of volume 1 of Capital, we find that this process could be accelerated by enforcing limits on the working day.

However, for some very odd fucking reason, you will never find any hint of this argument in the writing of a single Marxist. And I will tell you why I think this is true. Before any Marxist academic ever writes a single university paper on labor theory, she has already undergone a rigorous indoctrination program know as introduction to Micro and Macro economics. By the time they have begun to seriously study labor theory, they are already completely indoctrinated into the bourgeois point of view. And this follows decades of living in a society where the bourgeois point of view is the only point of view. Thus, when they take up study of labor theory, they approach it like a bourgeois simpleton.

In any case, I want to draw you attention to the last part of that quote from Marx — the part I emphasized. I bring your attention to it because it is very similar to a familiar passage taken almost directly from the Grundrisse “fragment on the machine”. There Marx writes:

“Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary. On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value. Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high.”

Certain Marxists, like Harvey and Heinrich swear Marx dropped this idea as he moved from the Grundrisse to writing Capital, volume 1. However, as can be clearly seen, Marx never dropped the idea; it continues through volume 1 and into volume 3 of Capital. Further, Marx seemed to be completely aware of the potential inherent in the struggle over hours of labor in accelerating the self-destruction of capital. Today, this awareness no longer exists anywhere in the Marxist school. In Capital, Marx explains why a political measure that limits the working day accelerates the very process that is already taking place in capital that is driving it toward its demise and the emergence of communism.

A reduction of hours of labor is the single most radical step SYRIZA can accomplish in the face of its enemies, because it exploits the central contradiction of capitalism: Its inherent tendency to reduce the labor required for production of commodities and therefore its own premise. It is a dagger aimed right at the heart of capitalism.