We must act now to directly challenge the system of wage slavery

by Jehu

@Gattungswesen_ has objected to the argument in my latest post, saying it “is predicated on an outdated analysis of capitalist society.” I want to take this post to respond to some of most important points raised.

If I can summarize it, @Gattungswesen_ makes these points:

  • 1. “the majority of workers in the west don’t produce anything and what they do produce is superfluous.”
  • “Surplus value is extracted in such a way that capitalism can do without workers.”
  • “there is now a surplus population as well as a massive reserve army of labour who struggle to find work.
  • “Capitalism requires workers less and less to produce surplus value”, “So workers have no bargaining chip anymore.”
  • “the capitalist class don’t need our labour time to create profit”

Based on these points, @Gattungswesen_ concludes that my proposal that the working class get control of its own labor power (i.e., put an end to their competition through an association, a union) is not going to work.

In a later exchange, @Gattungswesen_ extended his argument:

“As for my points: The subsumption of the labour process has changed from a formal one to a real one. Relative surplus value characterises this real subsumption, which sees an increase.in productivity and the expulsion of workers from the production process. This is characterised by a decrease in wages, the precariousness and pauperisation of work, and the automation of the production process. This leads to an absolute decrease in workers producing things.

“Relative surplus value characterises this real subsumption, which sees an increase in productivity and the expulsion of workers from the production process. This is characterised by a decrease in wages, the precariousness and pauperisation of work, and the automation of the production process. This leads to an absolute decrease in workers producing things. A consequence of this is that those producing surplus value are becoming less relevant and irrelevant in the labour/capital relationship.

“This means a surplus population exists that is not valorising or expanding capital. The proletariat can no longer reproduce itself. The identity of the worker that characterised the former period of capital no longer exists. If a mass of superfluous workers produce a mass of superfluous products then it is not possible to reproduce the identity of the worker that was paramount to the struggles of the former period of capitalism. The proletariat no longer have the power to effect change through demands on capital. They can no longer champion the worker as an indispensable element in the labour/capital process.

“If this is your analysis then fine. But if your strategy seeks to produce communism through some critical mass of withdrawing labour and waiting for capitalism to crumble, then it is ignoring the analysis.”

I actually agree with most of what @Gattungswesen_ has to say here. By and large most workers in the West do not produce anything and a great deal of what they produce is superfluous. And there is a huge surplus population of workers who are struggling to find work. Capitalism today requires far fewer workers to produce surplus value and, as a result, workers have little or no bargaining power in today’s highly globalized economy.

However, my objection to @Gattungswesen_’s basic assessment is limited to two points: First, I do not agree that surplus value is extracted in such a way that capitalism can do without workers. Second, I do not agree with @Gattungswesen_ that the capitalist class don’t need our labour time to create profit. While I would agree that MOST workers do not produce surplus value, the production of surplus value still requires workers. I also disagree with the assertion that the capitalist class can realize this surplus value as profit without our labor time.

In fact, the critical problem of our time is that the production of surplus value requires ever fewer workers, while the realization of the produced surplus value as profit requires an ever increasing number of workers. Let me suggest that this contradiction explains why so-called “full employment” has been the central focus of state economic policy since the Great Depression.

Postone and superfluous labor time

As Keynes put it in 1930, the problem capitalists face is that increasing productivity of labor is outrunning new uses the capitalists can find for labor. Keynes is essentially suggesting there are now two different measures of necessary labor time in capitalist society. The first measure is the duration of labor time required to produced commodities; while the second measure is the duration of labor time necessary to convert those commodities back into an additional increment of capital.

Between these two measures of labor time, a new category of labor time has emerged that Postone calls ‘superfluous labor time.’ Superfluous labor time consists, as @Gattungswesen_ argues, of a mass of superfluous workers producing a mass of superfluous products. Postone goes on to suggest that this mass of superfluous labor time would be converted into free disposable time for individuals under a future communist society.

If Postone is correct, the question is how do we convert this unnecessary and onerous capitalistic superfluous labor time into free communist time. This is the problem my proposal is trying to address.

Thus, my proposal for a movement that directly challenges wage labor is not based, as @Gattungswesen_ seems to think, on an outdated analysis of the capitalist mode of production, but on Postone’s reading of Marx’s labor theory of value. It fully takes into account the existence of a huge mass of excess capital and a huge population of workers who have been made redundant by the development of the forces of production bound up with capital.

What it doesn’t do is say we have to accept this miserable situation, with all of its attendant social consequences.

Marx and the 20th century economic problem of demand management

There is, in fact nothing new about Postone’s discussion of the problem of superfluous labor time. In volume three of Capital, Marx already pointed out that “The conditions of direct exploitation, and those of realising it, are not identical. They diverge not only in place and time, but also logically.” The labor time required for production of surplus value has no direct relation to the labor time required for realizing this surplus value as profit.

All Postone adds to this argument by Marx is that the duration of labor time required for realization of surplus value as profit is now definitely greater than that required for production of the surplus value whose realization is in question. And, again, Marx fully anticipated Keynes’ 1936 argument in General Theory regarding the problem of maintaining demand and full employment policies when he wrote,

“It is no contradiction at all on this self-contradictory basis that there should be an excess of capital simultaneously with a growing surplus of population. For while a combination of these two would, indeed, increase the mass of produced surplus-value, it would at the same time intensify the contradiction between the conditions under which this surplus-value is produced and those under which it is realised.”

The contradiction Marx points to in this passage is that bringing together the excess capital with the surplus population of workers would indeed increase the amount of surplus value produced, but to whom would this additional product be sold? Keynes’ solution was that the unsold product could be lent to the state, which would borrow the excess capital and employ it for whatever purpose it chooses — houses, war, etc.

It can be seen from this that Marx’s labor theory of value is not only not outdated, but fully anticipated the entire history of economic thought in the 20th century. In short, Marx had already anticipated that generating full employment must become the over-riding concern of the state. Postone is thus drawing directly on Marx’s theory when he argues capital eventually gives rise to a mass of superfluous labor time that can be converted into free disposable time for all members of society.

If an objection can be made to my ideas, it can’t possible be based on some defect in my analysis of the capitalist mode of production for the simple reason that it isn’t my analysis in the first place: it is Marx’s. All I have done is, on the basis of Marx’s theory, to propose a possible working class strategy for converting this huge mass of superfluous labor time into free disposable time. Which is to say, I have proposed a strategy by which the working class can convert this superfluous labor time directly into communism.

My proposal is for a direct conversion superfluous labor time into free time without any intermediate steps. In the first place, this conversion does not require us to seize state power to effect it. In the second place, we do not seek to fetishize nationalization of factories and centrally controlled production. We need only to lay our hands on our own labor power; the only commodity that can make real capital out of capital.

Wage labor and the problem of competition

Unless it can be shown why Marx’s theory, specifically as read through Postone, is obsolete or outdated, I assume the problem is not with my analysis, but with the strategy I propose based on Marx’s analysis. By taking control of our labor power, we can control the only commodity that can make real capital out of capital. Through this control we can take control of both production and distribution.

@Gattungswesen_’s argument against my idea comes down to his assertion that we need wage labor today more than the capitalists need us. There is, as @Gattungswesen_ points out, a huge number of workers world-wide who are locked out of employment and forced to live on handouts. There is, in addition, an equally massive number of workers who are employed, but in jobs that produce nothing and only wastes labor and resources. With a huge number of workers altogether unemployed and an equally huge number of workers employed unproductively, @Gattungswesen_ argues the working class has been effectively robbed of all bargaining power.

“The proletariat no longer have the power to effect change through demands on capital. They can no longer champion the worker as an indispensable element in the labour/capital process.”

Lacking any bargaining power, we face a situation “characterised by a decrease in wages, the precariousness and pauperisation of work, and the automation of the production process.”

Without taking exception to the analysis offered here, I take exception to the conclusion. It is completely true that there is a huge population of workers locked out of all employment, but these workers, while producing no surplus value of their own, make possible increased accumulation of surplus value by depressing the wages of those who are employed. Their economic function is not in the production of surplus value, but as an instrument wielded by capital to intensify the exploitation of the employed by driving wages below the value of labor power.

It is also completely true that there is, in addition to the reserve army, an equally massive number of workers who are only formally attached to the system of wage labor. These are workers who produce no surplus value on their own, but whose economic function is to absorb the surplus product of the productively employed. Economically, these workers function as a sort of “internal third persons” and thus make it possible for the newly produced surplus value to be realized as profits. Which is to say, these workers absorb the greater part of the excess capital that cannot find a place in productive employment. An example of these workers is obviously defense industry employment of the United States.

Thus, while it may appear as if a rather large portion of the working class are “becoming less relevant and irrelevant in the labour/capital relationship”, this is only true for the direct process of production of surplus value. Capital remains as dependent on the unemployed and unproductively employed workers for its profits as it is for those workers who are directly employed in the production of surplus value. It is not enough to simply produce a mass of excess surplus value. Having produced this mass, the obstacles to realizing it as profit become increasingly insurmountable. Without the unemployed, wages would be much higher and profits much lower. Without the unproductively employed, there would be no market for the excess surplus value thrown onto markets.

Moreover, the division between productively employed, unproductively employed and unemployed are not fast and fixed. Workers constantly move from one section to another: one day productively employed, the next day unemployed or only formally employed. During very large scale crises, like the one in 2008, large numbers of workers who were both productively employed or only formally employed can suddenly and without warning be reduced to the ranks of the unemployed and thus serve to depress the wages of their former co-workers.

The employed workers thus have to worry not only about their own employment, but about the sudden dislocations that lead to the discharge of very large numbers of other workers and the impact this will have on their own wages. Every worker knows her own conditions of employment rest in large part on the state of employment generally. An employment environment characterized by very high unemployment and falling wages is a threat to all workers, job or no job.

While, in general, capital remains completely dependent on labor, the individual worker experiences this dependence as absolute indifference to her own individual circumstances. Her particular circumstances are characterized by chaos and dislocation, where she can be suddenly thrown from employed to unemployed or see her wages stagnate or fall, all due to no actions on her part.

In connection with this, I find it extremely interesting that @Gattungswesen_ focuses on the impact competition has on the bargaining power of the workers, but completely ignores discussing how to put an end to this competition.

Disrupting the system of wage slavery

@Gattungswesen_ incorrectly summarizes my proposed strategy this way:

“As I understand your strategy, you seek to build struggles for mediating and altering the labour/capital relationship to build confidence and solidarity associations until you reach a critical mass and then you with hold labour.”

Perhaps this is the problem. This is not the strategy I was proposing. Rather, it was the strategy against which I was arguing. My proposed strategy is not, as @Gattungswesen_ states, “to build struggles for mediating and altering the labour/capital relationshipto build confidence and solidarity associations until you reach a critical mass and then you with hold labour”; rather, I propose a movement of the working class to openly and directly aim to put an immediate end to wage labor altogether.

To employ an analogy, the civil rights movement did not focus their efforts on indirect methods. They directly said they intended to put an end to segregation. Wage labor is no less an abomination than segregation was in the 1950s and I see no reason why we can’t say that out of our mouths that our immediate aim is the abolition of wage slavery.

Thus, my strategy is not that we build confidence and solidarity associations until we have the mass following needed to directly confront the system of wage labor. I propose that we need to begin to disrupt the system of wage labor immediately, just as early civil rights advocates began by disrupting the system of segregation through a series of planned actions.

The opponents of segregation did not wait until they had a critical mass before they began disrupting segregation; instead, they gained a critical mass of support by aggressively disrupting segregation through their own direct actions. Those actions eventually sparked hundreds of rebellions across the United States by others who independently took up their emancipatory cause.

To those who think this is impossible, let me just say that at one point segregation was as normalized in the United States as wage labor. It is only in retrospect that folks today find the very idea of segregation abominable. In the form of Apartheid, it was practiced in South African until the ’90s. And, in the Middle East, Israel practices it still to this day. Segregation in the 1950s was seen as ‘normal’ to Americans as wage labor is right now.

Lacking any effective power to determine our lives, we cannot afford to wait until we have the majority of the working class behind us. We have to act now to create that majority through out direct action.

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