Labor Theory for (Marxist) Dummies: Part 2

by Jehu

Steps the capitalists can take to counter a reduction in hours of labor and their effect when hours of labor are reduced

In the first part of this series, I showed that a reduction of hours of labor has no impact on wages and productive employment so long as this reduction does not actually encroach on the socially necessary labor required to produce the value of the wages of the working class. In this part, I will show why, under certain circumstances, a reduction of hours of labor will actually increase both wages and productive employment.

I. Intensification of Labor

As I have shown in the first part of this series, in theory, there is nothing that prevents the working class from forcing a reduction of hours of labor of such magnitude that the reduction drives the rate of surplus value to zero. Such a reduction would not simply drive the rate of surplus value to zero, but would also drive the rate of profit to zero.

However, the rate of profit is the goad of capitalist production. Nothing is produced if a profit can’t be made on it. Given the sensitivity of capital to the rate of profit, how might capital respond to a zero rate of profit? Marx addresses this in some detail in chapter 14 of volume 3 and also in chapter 15 of volume 1.

In volume 3, Marx calls the various strategies employed by capital to raise the rate of profit, “counteracting influences”. Can these counteracting influences overcome the impact of a reduction in hours of labor? And, if so, which ones and how?

The first counteracting influence Marx addresses is intensification of the exploitation of the working class. According to Marx, this intensification of labor can be realized by,

  • Prolongation of the working day;
  • increasing the pace of labor;
  • heightened tension of labor power;
  • reducing the unproductive employment of labor;
  • improving the organization of labor.

In this section, I want to focus on two of the above mentioned means of intensifying the labor of the working class: the heightened tension of labor power and reduction of unproductive employment.

Labor hours reduction and the heightened tension of labor-power

In chapter 15 of volume 1, Marx has this to say about the impact of fewer hours of labor:

“[So] soon as the compulsory shortening of the hours of labour takes place. The immense impetus it gives the development of productive power, and to economy in the means of production, imposes on the workman increased expenditure of labour in a given time, heightened tension of labour-power, and closer filling up of the pores of the working-day, or condensation of labour to a degree that is attainable only within the limits of the shortened working-day. This condensation of a greater mass of labour into a given period thenceforward counts for what it really is, a greater quantity of labour.”

Marx argues more work can be gotten out the worker because the intensity of labor is heightened when it is expended for a shorter period of time. Marx speaks of a ‘self-evident law’: Within certain limits, the efficiency of labor is inversely proportional to its duration. Once hours of labor are reduced, labor becomes more efficient, uniform, regular and continuous, and accomplished with greater energy.

According to Marx, the empirical evidence available in his day from the reduction of hours of labor from 12 hours to 10 hours showed the workers’ productivity increased to such an extent as to completely offset the fall in hours of labor:

“The denser hour of the ten hours’ working-day contains more labour, i.e., expended labour-power than the more porous hour of the twelve hours’ working-day. The product therefore of one of the former hours has as much or more value than has the product of 1 1/5 of the latter hours. Apart from the increased yield of relative surplus-value through the heightened productiveness of labour, the same mass of value is now produced for the capitalist say by 3 1/3 hours of surplus-labour, and 6 2/3 hours of necessary labour, as was previously produced by four hours of surplus-labour and eight hours of necessary labour.”

According to Marx, then, the reduction of hours of labor produces a dividend in the form of increased energy on the part of the work during the now compressed labor time, allowing the workers to produce more output in the same period of time. When the social labor day was reduced from 12 hours to a ten hour day, the increased energy of labor was great enough that the same mass of value was produced less time than before.  Thus, although it may be difficult to estimate its extent, it is likely that, in our example, when hours of labor are reduced from eight to four, a similar output premium will be produced.

This effect is important and should not be overlooked when considering the impact of reduced hours of labor, but it is not the only aspect to be considered. The extent to which the present working day can be compressed without any impact on real production of use values is directly proportional to the quantity of labor power that is, at present, employed unproductively. Thus, to understand how far this effect might go, requires a short discussion of the Marxian concept of superfluous labor.

Superfluous labor time

As has been marked by many Marxist writers in the past four decades, a growing proportion of workers are not productively employed. These unproductively employed workers perform labors that do not enter into the further production of commodities.

According to an essay written by Chris Harman in 2007,Marxists have long noted the growth of non-value producing labor in the economy:

“Moseley, Shaikh and Tonak, and Simon Mohun have all noted another feature of capitalism’s most recent development – one highlighted by Kidron back in the 1970s. This is the growing ‘non-productive’ portion of the economy.

Mainstream neoclassical economics regards all economic activities involving buying and selling as “productive”. This follows from its limited focus on the way transactions take place in markets. Marx, like Adam Smith and David Ricardo before him, had a deeper concern – to discover the dynamics of capitalist growth. He therefore further developed a distinction to be found in Smith between “productive” and “unproductive” labour. For Marx, productive labour was that which created surplus value through expanding production. Unproductive labour was that which, rather than expanding production, was simply distributing, protecting or wasting what was already produced – for instance, the labour of personal servants, policemen, soldiers or sales personnel.”

To give you a concrete idea of what superfluous labor time might look like: Five American soldiers in Iraq may be very efficient at raping a 14 year old girl and murdering her family, but they do not produce anything having value or use value. Moreover, while the soldiers are engaged in raping the child and murdering her family, they still must be clothed, housed, fed and supplied munitions. This requires the labor of other, productively employed, workers from various productive industries.

Thus, the soldiers perform no useful labor of their own and require the useful labor of others to sustain them in their atrocities.

Of course, since almost all labor in our society is abstract homogenous labor of the type that can produce value, it is problematic to produce a comprehensive list of labors that are unproductive of surplus value in the ‘economy’, because, by and large, we cannot tell by looking at any specific concrete act of labor whether it is productive of value or surplus value; in principle, value can’t be seen and, for the most part, value-producing labor cannot be distinguished from labor that does not produce value.

I admit this is a real problem that requires a real solution, but for the moment let me set it aside. Even if I cannot tell by looking at a specific concrete act of labor whether it is productive or unproductive of surplus value, I can still at least make the assumption that not all labor in the economy may be productive of value and surplus value. And making this assumption, we can ask how reducing hours of labor might affect wages and employment when a portion of labor power is employed unproductively.

Condensation of the working day

Again, assume a total labor force of 100 workers, each working eight hours. The aggregate social labor day is 800 hours, but only half of the workers actually produce value. As a result, an aggregate social labor day of 800 hours only produces 400 hours of value.

In our example, however, 100 workers receive a wage, but of those 100 workers only 50 workers actually produce the value of those wages. Those 50 workers produce not only their own wages, but the wages of the remaining 50 workers and the surplus value of capital. The total pot of value from which both wages and profits are drawn cannot exceed the aggregate labor day of  the 50 productively employed workers, i.e., 400 hours of actual value producing labor.

If the rate of surplus value is 100%, half of all productive labor time falls as wages to the entire body of workers and half is unpaid labor time that falls as profits to the capitalist.

Which means, of the total value actual produced (400 hours), 200 hours cover the wages of both the productively and unproductively employed workers and 200 hours are the profits of the capitalist.

In our original example in part one of this series, each worker received four hours of labor time as wages; however, in this case, on average each worker must receive only two hours as wages. The wages of the workers that is paid out of the total capital advanced, but which produces no value must, therefore, be paid for out of the pockets of the workers that are productively employed.

No matter what the nominal (currency) wages of the workers, on average their real wages contain only half the value of wages in our original in part one of this series.

A reduction of superfluous hours of labor must increase wages

If the above argument is correct, a reduction of hours of labor, under conditions where a significant part of the working class is unproductively employed, will not just reduce the rate of profit to zero, it will also have the surprising effect of increasing the aggregate wages of the entire working class; this time from 200 hours to 400 hours.

This is because, when hours of labor are reduced, the superfluous labor time of these unproductive workers is no longer economically sustainable. These formerly unproductive workers must now be employed productively and thus begin reproducing the value of their own wages. If Marx is correct in chapter 15 of volume 1, the condensation of a greater mass of labor into the new, shorter labor day, (i.e., the reduction of wasted, unproductively employed labor power), must have the effect of forcing capital to reduce the inefficient expenditures of labor that produces no value.

The existence of a mass of unproductively employed labor power, what Marx calls “the pores of the working-day”, whether this unproductive employment occurs within the individual capitalist firm or in society generally, (as in the case of military spending), is no longer economically sustainable once hours of labor have been reduced.

To summarize this part of my series, three things stand out:

We have seen above that a reduction of hours of labor must force capital to reduce the unproductive employment of labor power, while this reduction makes possible a heightened tension of labor power, allowing the worker to produce more labor in less time. Based on this, I argue:

1. With the reduction of hours of labor, the workers, now working only four hours instead of eight, can focus more closely on their tasks for shorter periods of time, providing increased energy to their labors. Marx estimated a similar reduction of the labor day from 12 hours to 10 hours in his day increased output by about 20% — enough to completely offset the reduction of hours of labor. While it may be difficult to estimate how a reduction of hours of labor today would impact output, we can assume there will be such an effect allowed by the condensation of productive labor time.

2. In our own time, Marxists have noted a huge mass of labor time that is unproductive. This mass may be far larger than what Marxists typically assume is available. If hours of labor are reduced, potentially, this massive duration of superfluous labor time also will be reduced without any impact on the production of material wealth. In their blind drive to restore the rate of profit, the capitalists must closely attend to eliminating all waste from the existing labor day and closely guard against every inefficient employment of labor power. This impact, I argue, is not limited to labor in the individual capitalist firms, but must include the unproductive employment of labor-power in society at large — for instance, the reduction of unproductive expenditures of the defense industry.

3. If, as several Marxists have suggested, there is a very large mass of superfluous, (non-value producing) labor in our economy today, labor theory of value suggests a reduction of hours of labor of sufficient size will not only drive the rate of profit to zero, but will, at the same time, raise wages considerably. Reducing hours of labor under this condition not only does not reduce the wages of the working class — as I have already shown in part one of this series — but must raise the wages of the working class. The mechanism for this increase in wages is the transfer of workers from superfluous employment to productive employment. The formerly superfluous workers no longer live off the labor of the productively employed workers, but begin to reproduce the value of their own wages.


In the next part of this series, I will show why reducing hours of labor has to force capital to operate as if it is in an expansion phase of the industrial cycle, throwing the industrial reserve army of labor into production in a desperate attempt to raise the rate of profit. This has huge significance for those strata of workers who have been locked out of all productive employment for decades.