Why the working class have become the biggest opponents of less work
One of the biggest problems with convincing workers to reduce their labor hours is that they focus on dollars rather than what dollars buy. If a worker works 40 hours a week and earns $10 an hour, a reduction of her work week from 40 hours to ten hours would reduce her nominal wage from $400 to $100.
Workers can do simple math and the math unambiguously tells them that a reduction of hours of labor translates into a reduction of nominal wages. No worker would accept a reduction of nominal wages unless compelled to for some reason. Not surprisingly, it is on this common-sense reaction by the worker to a fall in nominal wages that Keynesian fascist economics is founded.
Needless to say this is a big problem for communists.
In his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Keynes points out that the worker will resist a fall in her nominal wages, but will not resist a fall in her real wages, so long as that fall is not too extreme and so long as her nominal wages remain unchanged.
Since workers will resist a fall in their nominal wages, but tend to ignore a fall in their real wages, Keynes suggested inflating prices i.e., depreciating what these nominal wages could buy. This is an effective strategy to maintain profits because inflation works against the consumption power of the working class as a whole, while workers fight to defend the purchasing power of their nominal wages only in a limited struggle against their particular firm.
While inflation works against all workers and all at once, the terrain of struggle is broken up into many separate firms, fragmented, dispersed. One section of workers, confined to a given company or industry, may be able to maintain the purchasing power of their nominal wages, but this is never true for that vast majority, who, in most cases, aren’t even organized and thus able to fight back. The great majority of workers watch the purchasing power of their wages collapse as inflation eats into their consumption power.
In time, even those who are unionized find their wages under attack as well on the basis of the argument that they are causing the inflation. The victims of government policy to depreciate the currency are made out to be the culprits causing the depreciation of the currency.
Real versus nominal wages
This is the part of Keynes’ General Theory that many communists want to ignore. It is bad enough that many communists never mention Keynes’ argument in General Theory and that many more never have even taken the time to read it in the first place.
What is worse than the sheer ignorance of communists is that Keynes was right: Most workers cannot tell the difference between real and nominal wages and conflate a fall in nominal wages with a cut in their real wages. They assume that a reduction in their nominal wages owing to a reduction of hours of labor will mean a reduction in their real wage.
So long as the conflation persists, it is almost guaranteed there will never be a significant reduction in labor hours, much less communism. Communism is simply the point where wages go to zero; or, alternately, the point where labor is no longer required for access to the means of consumption. If people treat wages going to zero as a bad thing, we can never get to the point where labor is no longer required for access to the means of consumption. The two statements literally are the same thing.
In order to tackle this problem, communists have to understand Keynes’ argument in General Theory, but most have no desire to learn it. The only part of Keynes’ argument that 99% of communists care about is the part where Keynes says government can create jobs. For some reason it doesn’t get through their heads that government creates jobs by depreciating the currency and thus the real wages of the working class.
It is easy to double employment when you just divide the wages of one worker among two workers. This is all Keynesian economic policy does, but it seems to be beyond the capacity of communists to understand this.
Who bears the cost of a depression
Keynes argument rested on a fundamental fallacy; a fallacy that served the interest of capital, rather than the working class. In Keynes argument the problem of unemployment could be solved by taking the real wages of one worker and dividing it among two workers. Both workers would then be employed, although at half the real wage of one worker.
This division of the real wage among two workers need not affect nominal wages for the simple reason that, with the debasement of the currency from gold, nominal wages would have no relation to real wages. What the worker got in nominal wages would be unchanged, although real wages — what she could buy with this currency — would fall. Since the worker would see no change in her nominal wages, only later, after the effects of devaluation spread throughout the economy, would she find that her currency wages did not go as far as before. The depreciation of the currency is separated in both time and space from the actual fall in her real wages.
This sort of devaluation of the currency to slash real wages had already taken place prior to Keynes writing his General Theory. FDR, who, for some strange reason, is considered an icon on the radical Left, devalued the currency in 1933 just as Keynes would later argue. One of his first acts upon taking office in 1933 was a measure known as Executive Order 6102, which confiscated gold and, more importantly, devalued the dollar from 20.67 dollars to an ounce of gold to 35 dollars to an ounce of gold. This was a 40% devaluation of the currency and had the immediate effect of imposing a 40% cut in wages.
If you have never heard of this measure, this is not surprising: not a single Marxist economist today ever discusses it, but the effectiveness of the measure was immediate: the contraction phase of the Great Depression ended almost immediately. Industry and employment almost immediately began to recover.
As Keynes would later explain, it was the reduction of the real wage, not nominal wages, that ended the depression. By and large, nominal wages remained unchanged and both communists and the working class generally appear not to have noticed the grave implications of the measure for real wages.
Keynes’ fallacy, however, consisted in the assertion that this was the only means to end the depression. It is obvious that dividing the real wage of one worker among two workers would make possible doubling of employment for the same real wage. But it is just as true that cutting the labor hours of one worker by half would make it possible for two workers to be employed.
The distinction between the two measures is that in the first case (cutting real wages) the working class bore the full burden of the crisis in their consumption, while, in the second case, the capitalist class bore the full burden of the crisis in their profits.
The question was never how to end the Great Depression, but which class would pay the cost of ending the Great Depression. Cutting hours of labor has the effect of reducing the surplus labor time of the worker and, therefore, the profits of capital. Doubling the labor force by cutting hours in half doesn’t have any effect on total hours of labor, but it does reduce surplus labor time. If after a reduction in hours of labor the capitalist wish to extract the same amount of surplus value, they have to introduce measures to intensify labor — improved efficiency and machines, science, technology, etc..
The first immediate effect of a reduction of hours of labor is that the profit rate sharply falls more than proportionally. The effects of a sharp fall in the rate of profit is described by Marx in Capital, volume 3, chapter 15 and I will not discuss them here beyond mentioning a few notable effects: concentration and centralization of capital, accelerated development of the productive forces, financial and credit crises, bankruptcies of smaller capital, etc.
It bears mentioning that reduction of hours of labor, rather than currency devaluation, was the measure adopted by the American labor movement in the 1930s. Unlike radicals today, the working class of that era rejected Keynes and embraced reduction of hours of labor.
The working class is to poor to reduce hours?
In truth, a capitalist society will always appear too impoverished to support communism because capitalism impoverishes everything to increase profits.
To say low wages of the working class prevents the reduction of labor hours is akin to rewarding capitalists for their ruthless exploitation. It amount to saying the more successful capital is in driving down the wage of the employed, the more impossible it is to abolish wage labor. Effectively, the capitalists can always make a case against reducing labor hours by forcibly maintaining the lowest possible wages for the working class.
If keeping the working class in poverty was not an aim in itself in order to maximize profits, it acquires this additional rationale. The capitalists and their agents can point to the poverty of the worker as proof fewer hours of labor is financially impossible for her! The argument that the worker herself cannot afford to work fewer hours is probably the most effective and potent claim made against it.
Even if this argument were true, it amounts to the argument that the capitalists can indefinitely forestall communism simply by maintaining the worker in a state of poverty. The argument actually encourages the capitalists to impose the most draconian constraints on the consumption power of the working class to keep them under control.
For communists to accept this argument is the height of hypocrisy, hubris and betrayal. But it is precisely this sort of hypocrisy, hubris and betrayal that is behind all proposals to limit our fight to immediate demands to improve the conditions of the class and address abolition of wage labor only later. The more effective the efforts of the capitalists to maintain the workers in a condition of poverty, the more the ultimate aim of emancipation is put off.
We have seen just this pattern for almost five decades now: The more the capitalists impose unreasonable demands for concessions from the working class, the more radicals confine their agitation to defending against those unreasonable demands and avoid posing the question of complete emancipation.
Defense against the unreasonable demands of capital are posed in opposition to emancipation as if emancipation does not include overthrowing all demands, reasonable or unreasonable, from capital: as if, in other words, measures like the end of the welfare system was not already implicit in the end of the wage slavery system; as if, somehow, we wanted to get rid of the wage system, but keep welfare, its necessary complement.
With communists like these, who need Keynesians?
In my opinion, these ideas do not primarily come from communists, but are the result of communists uncritically channeling the ideas generated from within the working class itself. The working class is absolutely dependent on the terms and conditions for the sale of its labor power to survive and the idea we are too poor for communism is produced by this dependence. Anything that appears to threaten the sale of labor power appears to the workers as a threat to her physical survival.
Workers don’t need communists to do the math: fewer hours of labor means lower wages. If this were a simple question of math, no one would ever need communists for anything: we have calculators built right into our smartphones.
The job of communists, however, is not to do the math for the working class, but to show them why the math is wrong. You don’t need science to solve common-sense every day questions. You need science when every day common-sense fails. Like the idea that fewer hours of work leads to the further impoverishment of the working class.
It is perfectly obvious that if my hours of labor are cut from 40 to 30, I will take a corresponding cut in wage and sink into poverty. But to extend this to every worker would be to introduce a fallacy of composition: the idea that what is true for one worker must be true if applied to all workers together.
The result of the first case is that wages fall. The result of the second case is that wages rise.
If all workers got together and withheld their labor beyond 30 hours, it would have the exact opposite result of what would happen if a single worker did this. This is because the withholding of labor beyond 30 hours by all workers would have the effect of reducing the total hours of labor supplied in the market for capitalist production. To make up for this reduced supply of labor time, the capitalists would have to hire additional workers and thus drive wages up. Reducing aggregate hours of labor supplied has very different result from reducing individual hours of labor supplied. While poverty of an individual worker cannot be fixed by working less, the poverty of the entire class can be fixed if they all work less.
This is the logic behind every industrial strike and even the formation of unions. In a union, workers band together and collectively reduce their labor time until their demands are met. The more inclusive the union, the more effective is their action. No worker can arrive at this conclusion by contemplating what will happen if she works less, because the two cases don’t work the same.
What is bizarre is that even communists can’t see this and can think only of the individual case. That is not science, that is common-sense reasoning. Common-sense reasoning may help us when we are trying to decide how much time to take off to care for a family member, but it can’t help us when it comes to emancipation. If we can combine in a local union, withhold our labor and win higher wages, what makes you think doing this exact same thing for the entire class would lead to lower wages?
Communists know this is the effect of combination which is why they support unionization, but for some strange reason they forget it when they think about emancipation.