Why reduction of labor hours cannot work as a ‘policy tool’

by Jehu

I have been rereading the paper by Kallis, Kalush, O’Flynn, Rossiter and Ashford, “Friday off”: Reducing Working Hours in Europe. I first learned of the paper when it was tweeted by Alex Tsipras on the night SYRIZA was elected to lead No_Known_Restrictions_A_little_spinner_in_Globe_Cotton_Mill._Augusta,_Ga.,_by_Lewis_W._Hine,_1909_(LOC)the government of Greece. I found it remarkable that this paper, which calls for a reduction of labor time, was being distributed by the head of that radical party on the eve of its victory. Did it signal his intention to pursue a new, radical, approach to the crisis in the European Union?

After that initial reaction, I’m now beginning to understand how the argument of Kallis, et al. was limited by a flawed approach to labor hours reduction in which labor hours reduction is essentially treated as just another tool of fascist state management of the economy. Many of the flaws relate to their poor (perhaps, non-existent) grasp of the basics of labor theory and reliance on neoclassical theory to make their argument. Those flaws can be broken down into three questions:

  1. Is labor hours reduction a policy tool?
  2. Can reducing hours of labor fix social ills created by capitalism?
  3. Is a reduction of hours of labor compatible with capitalism?

The following is my take on their approach.


In their conclusion, Kallis et al. list several problems that suggest reducing hours of labor will have an ambiguous impact on several important areas of economic concern, but this ambiguous impact is largely a problem created by their approach: they see labor hours reduction solely as a policy tool to achieve other ends:

The authors ask the question:

“Can a reduction of working hours provide for employment, earning capacity and a healthier economy without leading to a growth of material production and consumption?”

From this question, it appears Kallis believes a reduction of hours of labor is justified as policy only so long as it, decreases unemployment; increases the earnings of the working class; and, leads to a decrease in both production and consumption. However, as Kallis et al admit, implementing a reduction of hours of labor that also raises wages, reduces unemployment and protects the environment turns out to be an “extremely complicated” hat-trick:

“This analysis has revealed how extremely complicated this question is. Perhaps it is the wrong question. Attention to the earning capacity of working and poor people is the more appropriate policy focus. Predictions of policies that focus on working hours can only be made, if we start with assumptions about how workers would use their free-time (e.g., in environmentally friendly ways), how wages/incomes would change, and how the implementation or enforcement of a work hour reduction might vary by industry, occupation, or firm size. Ultimately, the effects of a work hour reduction would depend heavily on union bargaining power and social policies that might simultaneously be enacted to influence how workers use their additional free-time and how firms respond to the new limits on work hours.”

In other words, even when the primary concern is whether less work can increase the real wages of the working class, this concern is necessarily complicated by how workers use their new free time away from labor, and how the product of labor will be distributed between the two classes after the reduction of hours. These factors, in turn, will depend on the degree of worker self-organization and on additional state measures to regulate both the workers use of their free time and the employment of labor by capitalist firms. In other words, Kallis et al. suggest a reduction of hours of labor has only an ambiguous impact on other social ills. And this suggests to me that Kallis et al. have a fundamentally wrong approach to the problem.

1. Is labor hours reduction a policy tool?

To understand how odd this sort of reasoning is, consider the authors making the same case for poverty-level wages or unemployment. How far should we reduce wages to increase employment? Or, How much unemployment should we tolerate to reduce damage to the environment? These types of proposed tradeoffs are clearly unacceptable. They are designed to immobilize policy by presenting two unpalatable alternatives as the only options available. It is the sort of “cost/benefit analysis” that has become increasingly popular in the era of neoliberalism. There is absolutely no empirical evidence a reduction of hours of labor is incompatible with zero poverty, zero unemployment and zero damage to the environment.

For some reason, the authors insist a reduction in hours of labor must have some impact on wages, employment and the environment to be justified, yet they can see no way to realize this complex goal without injecting extraneous political measures in addition to a reduction of hours of labor. And this presents a problem because the authors of this paper (as well as many other labor hours reduction advocates) are attempting to market hours of labor reduction not as an end in itself — a social good for the working class — but as a state “policy” that must be marketed to us as means to achieve other, more worthy, policy goals.

Suppose we find that a reduction of hours of labor had no net impact whatsoever on low wages, high unemployment and destruction of the environment, why would this be an argument against labor hours reduction? In first place, no matter how justified wage labor may be historically, because it has raised the productivity of labor, it must be admitted wage labor has been and remains a disgusting social institution in which propertyless persons must sell their physical and mental capacities as a commodity in return for the basic means to life. However historically justified this may be from the dispassionate viewpoint of social development, as a practical matter nothing justifies wage labor for a minute more than is required by the labor time socially necessary for production of commodities. The emancipation of society from wage labor should not be conditioned on the achievement of some extraneous state policy aim, but by material necessity alone. Wage labor is repugnant to our humanity and should be abolished at the earliest opportunity.

In second place, the authors approach raises several questions: First, since, according to the authors, any reduction of hours of labor will still require additional measures to actually reduce poverty, unemployment and environmental damage, why have these additional measures not already been enacted even without a reduction of hours of labor? Second, what forces, if any, exist in the economy at present that prevent the emergence of a full employment, high wage economy that does not damage the environment — even without a reduction of hours of labor?

2. Will reducing hours of labor fix social ills created by capitalism?

The authors adopt a very bizarre approach to labor hours reduction, because they never realize capitalist production is at present the only possible source of poverty, unemployment and environmental damage. Despite the fact capitalist production is the only known source of these social ills today, the advocates of labor hours reduction take it on themselves to prove that less capitalist production, (i.e., less wage labor), will not make things worse.

We already know that capitalist production for profit is the sole possible cause of these social ills, because, at present, it is the only existing system of production in place. Since the last real reduction of hours of labor occurred almost 80 years ago, no one can seriously argue that a reduction of hours of labor has caused any of these problems, so why do Kallis et al. think they must prove this. And why do advocates of labor hours reduction feel the need to base their appeal for less labor on the argument that less capitalist production will fix the social ills that any sober examination shows capitalist production alone has created?

Essentially, labor hours reduction advocates are trying to prove that working people, in their free time away from labor, will not create the social problems that arise solely from capitalist production itself. They are trying to show why wage slaves, once freed even marginally from their condition of wage servitude, will not plunge society deeper into the economic and ecological disaster already being wrought by capitalism itself.

To make my point absolutely explicit: The assumption smuggled into the argument of these advocates of labor hours reduction is that the only thing holding off the complete collapse of civilization is the continuation of wage slavery. Should society ever attempt to reduce hours of labor, we are all going to die.

3. Is a reduction of hours of labor compatible with capitalism?

Since no one in their right mind could ever explicitly make the argument that less wage labor adds to problems that can only be explained by wage labor, what is going on here?

I’ll tell you what I think it is: There is a subtle shift being made in the terms of the debate. Advocates are not trying to prove reducing hours of labor is a solution to the social ills created by the capitalist mode of production, but that reducing hours is compatible with the continuation of capitalist production itself. Although the argument is carefully couched in the framework of a discussion of the impact labor hours reduction will have on the social problems created by capitalism, Kallis et al. actually are trying to demonstrate that reducing hours of labor will not undermine the capitalist mode of production.

To prove this, Kallis, et al. begin their argument by making a quite confusing distinction between productivity and productiveness. It took me several readings just to figure they were discussing whether changes in the productivity of labor affected the distribution of the social product of labor between wage labor and capital. Thus we learn a change in the productivity of labor may either result in an increase in the surplus value falling to capital (“the productiveness of capital”) or it can result in an increase in wages falling to the worker (“the productiveness of labor”).

This argument is fundamentally unsound: A reduction of hours of labor reduces the aggregate value of the social product available for distribution between both classes, whether in the form of wages or profits.

In first place, any reduction on labor hours reduces the average labor time per worker available for production of commodities. It thus proportionally reduces the aggregate value of the social product that can be produced by a given population of workers during the working day that only later will be available for distribution as wages and profits. Thus, before any distribution of the social product takes place, the aggregate value of the social product that can be produced by a given population of workers in the course of a single working day will already have fallen. There is less value in aggregate to be distributed as wages and profits.

In second place, the reduction of hours of labor reduces the time available on average both for the capitalist exploitation of labor power generally, and for enforcing a strict limit on labour-time expended for production of commodities, so that the labor time actually expended in production does not exceed the average social labor time required for the production of the commodities. [Marx, Capital, volume 3, chapter 15] Which is to say, a reduction of hours of labor has the same impact on capitalist production as a fall in the rate of profit, except the actual reduction of expended labor time is imposed preemptively on the capitalists, rather than being a product of the crisis. Simply put, a reduction of hours of labor forces capitalist firms to reduce their employment of labor in production without giving them the option to just throw a very large numbers of workers out of work.

Of course, consequent to a reduction of hours of labor, new technologies will be introduced to increase the productivity of labor and raise the rate of profit. Thus, it is possible that as a result of these new technologies a particular capitalist will capture a new market, etc. and, with the cheapening of commodities produced by these new technologies, there may be an expansion of demand for goods overall; nevertheless even when introduction of improved production technologies increase demand for labor, this increase is more than offset by a relative reduction of labor demand as a proportion of the total capital laid out and thus the rate of profit will fall again.

Reduction of hours of labor, therefore, only accelerates the process of replacement of living labor by machines. But this process is itself that very one that is driving capitalism toward its demise. Thus, reducing hours of labor accelerates the process by which capitalism negates itself and creates in its place the material prerequisites for communism.


Reduction of hours of labor is not a policy tool to achieve some more worthy policy goals, nor is it as mere means to fix the ills of capitalist production; rather, it is the progressive abolition of capital itself and the whole system of wage slavery.