How not to argue against reducing hours of labor

by Jehu

scarface_17-2I have been reading an essay on work time reduction, Eight Hours Too Many?, written by E. Kerr. I wasn’t impressed by Kerr’s argument and I have five reasons why I think Kerr’s argument is unimpressive.

1. The ambiguity of “work”

My first objection may seem a bit esoteric, but please bear with me as its significance will become more evident as my argument unfolds.

I think Kerr gets off on the wrong foot by not addressing the ambiguous use of term work in the slogan, “Work less to live more”. Taking aim at this slogan, Kerr argues:

“Work less to live more. What a beautiful slogan! I wonder if the one who coined it understood the unintended truth it contains, that work is the negation of life.”

The use of the term, “work” in this context is, at best, unclear; and, at worst, absolute nonsense. Work, the actual physical expenditure of human labor power, is not necessarily the negation of life, but a fundamental requirement for life. Even in the complete absence of any external social compulsion, we would still be required to expend some quantity of our labor power to produce what we need to live on.

From the point of view of work as a necessary condition of life, the slogan, “Work less to live more”, is obviously nonsensical, since we must work as long as is necessary to live. But it follows from this that the originator of the slogan, “Work less to live more”, was not referring to the physical intercourse with nature required to sustain human life. For the slogan, “Work less to live more”, to have any meaning at all, it must refer to something else: namely, work beyond that duration of labor materially required for life.

To call both labor required for the maintenance of human life and labor beyond this duration simply “work” is at best ambiguous, because it is unclear to which definition of “work” the originator of the slogan was referring. But here reason rescues us from being imbeciles — although it, unfortunately, did not help Kerr.

“Work more to live less” can only mean work less beyond what we materially require to sustain ourselves, to live. This period of work, beyond what we need to sustain ourselves, is what Marx called surplus labor time, labor carried on not because it is materially necessary, but because capitalist social relations demand we perform some duration of surplus labor time.

The slogan “Work less to live more”, simply means spending less time producing surplus value for the capitalist in order to enjoy our lives as human beings. We are, in other words, not talking about work in general, but a particular sort of work, wage labor, or work to produce surplus value  for capital.

The slogan, “Work less to live more”, is thus a rallying cry of the working class against wage labor itself. This would be obvious to Kerr, if he spent a moment actually considering what the slogan means. And it would then be obvious, as well, why, as Kerr puts it:

“It is taken for granted that less time spent at work means more time dedicated to oneself,  and thus that every minute, every hour snatched from the factory or office could only represent a step forward toward  a better quality of life.”

So long as we produce enough to live, less time spent on the job mean more time for ourselves.

2. The production of surplus value is the real burden

Again conflating “work” with wage labor, Kerr asks:

“If work was really the dimension through which the human being creates the world and himself, why does she feel it as a burden?”

The answer should be obvious: Because work, as Kerr is implicitly using the term, has nothing to do with  “the dimension through which the human being creates the world and himself”. Work, as Kerr is using the term, only has to do with the duration of labor time beyond which the human being creates the world and himself. This additional duration of time is experienced as a burden because it is precondition for wage labor, i.e., it is a compulsory condition of production for profit that must be fulfilled if the worker is to sell her labor power to re-create herself.

To simply produce for her own material requirements — which itself requires some definite expenditure of human labor — the worker must also produce surplus for her employer and the fascist state (where do you think all those aircraft carriers come from) and this requires an additional unpaid expenditure of her labor.

At least in theory, it is not the least bit true that “If we don’t want to die of hunger, we are forced to earn money, we are forced to go to work. ” In fact, we are forced to earn money only in a society where production is based on wage labor. Again. the problem here is not work itself, but a particular sort of work, capitalistic wage labor.

And, it is equally untrue that “working means submitting to extortion.” Human beings for thousands of years (and every other creature on the planet at present) engages in some sort of production without in any way accepting the extortion that they must produce surplus value for an employer. This extortion only arises when, to engage in the simplest act of production to satisfy our own material requirements, this satisfaction is conditioned on producing surplus value for capital and the capitalist state.

3. Wage labor: Extortion or a contract between classes

By tolerating the ambiguity of the term, “work”, Kerr now goes completely off the rails. While wage labor is the negation of life, he argues no reduction of “wage labor” will work, because all wage labor is extortion. You renegotiate the terms of an extortion only to extend the contract:

“So working means submitting to extortion. But then what does a reduction in work hours mean? To begin with, reducing the hours of work means making a change. Many say a positive change. But there is a contradiction here as well. Changing a clause in a contract does not mean annulling the contract as such. On the contrary, as everyone knows well, a contract is renegotiated only if one intends to extend it.”

Here, I have to ask one question: What contract?

Were we not talking about wage labor as extortion? How do you first say wage labor is extortion, but then state wage labor is a contract? If it is extortion, it is extortion. No contract is implied in an act of extortion and thus there is no extension of the contract implied in reducing hours of labor.

In society, there is an ongoing conflict over an act of extortion between an exploiter party, (who owns the means of production), and an exploited party, (who can only access this means to produce her life necessities if she is willing to labor a certain duration of time without any payment). This is a confrontation between two parties that ultimately must be decided by physical conflict.

Periodically, this conflict ends in a temporary equilibrium of sorts based on the relative strength of the two warring parties. If we can speak of a “contract” in this context, it is just the temporary interruption of a never-ending class conflict, which interruption may or may not be given expression in some legal form. Capital and labor fight out their class war to some particular outcome, which is later anointed by a state law, but law or no, it is class war that determines the outcome of the conflict, not contract law. At one point, this conflict leads to a ten hours day, but later, after a new contest, it leads to an eight hours day.

By increment, the working class grows in strength against its exploiter and this results in a new contest ending in a unique and new result. But the class war is not simply decided by the relative strength of the two classes but also by the conditions within each class. Those conditions are such that even as capitals kill each other off and reduce their own numbers, the working class grows in absolute numbers.

Thus, competition among capitals ultimately gives way to monopoly, while competition among the working class constantly increases. Even as capital becomes concentrated in fewer hands, the workers become more fragmented and consumed by competition. Their greater numbers bring with it heightened intra-class conflicts.

Since the competition within the working class is over who will sell her labor power to capital, as a practical matter a reduction of hours would reduce the competition within the working class. But it could not reduce working class competition without also reducing capitalist profits. The working class thus not only must overcome competition within its ranks to reduce its hours of labor, the reduction of competition within the working class makes possible the end of wage labor itself. The reduction of hours of labor is just the periodic expression of the movement to end wage labor in its entirety.

4. Does labor hours reduction mean poverty for the working class?

Now, it is obvious that the complete end of wage labor would mean the working class would no longer be burdened by the compulsory requirement to produce surplus value for the capitalist; however, Kerr would have us believe that a reduction of hours of labor has the opposite impact: it will drive the working class into poverty. This is the real meat of Kerr’s argument, for which the rest of his essay is so much piling on.

Kerr writes :

“The reduction of work hours will not make us work less, but more. In fact, in the great majority of cases, it isn’t just the hours that are reduced, but the earnings as well. We work less, but we also earn less. It follows from this that anyone who wants to maintain the acquired standard of living, and perhaps improve it, will be forced to find a second job to round out her wages: to work more, not less. Instead of doing one job for eight hours every day, one will now do two jobs, one for six hours and another for four hours, for example.”

Kerr’s argument is based on the logical fallacy that since we are paid by the hour, fewer hours of wage labor will mean lower wages. The argument is impressive and indeed the most common objection made against fewer hours of labor, but Kerr and the detractors of hours of labor reduction never demonstrate that wages have any relation whatsoever to the subsistence of the working class.

This argument is counter-intuitive, and, on that basis, may be rejected by many, who, in any case, won’t want to test it, but ask yourself this: How many people today work 72 hours a week? When hours of labor were reduced from 72 hours per week in the 19th century to 40 hours per week today, is there any evidence any significant numbers of workers suddenly felt the need to get a second or third job to make up for their lost wages?

To approach this from another angle, do minimum wage workers today make less or more than minimum wage workers in 1970? The answer is, of course, both Yes and No. In absolute (nominal) dollars terms, the minimum wage worker is today paid four or five times what she was paid 1970, but we all know that the purchasing power of those higher wages in the grocery store is only a fraction of what she would have received in 1970. The increase in the minimum wage had absolutely no impact on the actual subsistence of a minimum wage worker, in fact her position has radically deteriorated since 1970.

To give a contemporary example, I want to point to the Eurozone today, where, the data suggests, the wages of the working class are almost entirely inversely correlated to their hours of labor. Those countries with the highest wages tend to have fewer hours of labor; while those countries with the lowest wages have the longest hours of labor. The Eurozone is particularly significant for the fact that there is a single currency in use by a number of countries who have many different laws on hours of labor. It is possible, therefore, to see the impact of fewer hours of labor on earnings in real time in a population of 300 million workers.

On this basis, what evidence is there for the often cited but completely unproven argument that a reduction of hours of labor  must leave the worker less well off? What the workers receives in wages is one thing, what she can buy with her wages is another thing altogether. The capitalist know this and have used rising nominal wages and inflation to fool us for the last 40 years. They know we very often conflate rising nominal wages with a rising standard of living, when nothing of the sort exists. Kerr falls for the money fallacy as if he is a newbie straight out of Econ101.

I have provided three empirically verifiable historical arguments against the notion fewer hours of work mean a lower standard of living. I have yet to see a single detractor of hours of labor reduction offer even one example to the contrary. Their arguments come down to this fallacious reasoning:

Fewer hours = less wages = a lower standard of living = second jobs

In fact, there is no such relation and Kerr didn’t have to speculate on the impact of less labor, s/he only had to look at the actual data. There is absolutely no data to support his argument that “Instead of doing one job for eight hours every day, one will now do two jobs, one for six hours and another for four hours, for example.”

5. More hours of labor only mean more surplus value

The problem with Kerr’s reasoning is that he thinks the capitalists grant us a living. As he puts it:

“I could be wrong of course. Maybe we really will manage to work less for the same wages. Maybe our Masters are really willing to  grant this to us.”

For whatever reason, Kerr has gotten it into his/her head that the capitalists “grant” us a living, not that wage labor is extortion whose parameters are determined by conflict between the two classes. Somehow s/he has decided we produce everything and then the capitalist decides how much we have for our allowance. This patriarchal notion of how capitalism works is so out of date, it bears no relation whatsoever to the real world.

In the real world, as all historical evidence shows, both the wages of the working class and its hours of labor are determined by its degree of organization and the class war it wages against it exploiters. There is no inherent connection between hours of labor and the actual subsistence of the working class such that fewer hours of labor necessarily mean a reduction of the subsistence of the working class.

Indeed, according to labor theory the relation is the exact opposite of the Kerr’s argument: Longer hours of labor are correlated with an increase in surplus value and, therefore, both the profits of capital and the expansion of the fascist state. Reducing hours of labor, therefore, must be seen as a decisive blow against capital and the state.