Labor hours reduction and the abolition of capitalism: An outline for an essay

by Jehu

NOTE: This outline has been developed based on Marx’s argument in Capital, volume one and volume three. In particular, I borrow the salient points of Marx’s theory from chapters seven and fifteen in volume one and chapter fifteen in volume three.

Any errors are the result of my misreading, not the author.

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INTRO: The production of surplus value, i.e. profit as a direct function of hours of labor:

“the past labour that is embodied in the labour-power, and the living labour that it can call into action; the daily cost of maintaining it, and its daily expenditure in work, are two totally different things.” -Capital, Volume 1, chapter seven

“The fact that half a day’s labour is necessary to keep the labourer alive during 24 hours, does not in any way prevent him from working a whole day.” (Ibid)

“The labourer therefore finds in the workshop the means of production necessary for working, not only during six, but during twelve hours.” (Ibid)

“If we now compare the two processes of producing value and of creating surplus-value, we see that the latter is nothing but the continuation of the former beyond a definite point.” (Ibid)

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1. Thus, in Marx’s labor theory of value, the production of surplus value, i.e., profit is nothing more than labor of a duration that is longer than that required for the subsistence of the worker. In first place, a reduction of hours of labor acts on this duration, by reducing it and by reducing the duration of labor that is in excess of that required for the subsistence of the worker. A reduction of hours of labor that does not go so far as to impinge on the duration of labor required to produce the subsistence of the worker, must reduce the absolute quantity of surplus value, i.e., profit, produced by the worker for the capitalist.

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2. What impact might this have on a system of production of material wealth founded on the production of surplus value, i.e., profit? As we have seen, the reduction of hours of labor in first place reduces the absolute quantity of surplus labor time and thus reduces the absolute quantity of surplus value. In a system founded on production for profit (capital), profit is the goad of all investment. With his profits suffering the impact of of a sudden fall in the absolute mass of surplus labor time, in theory at least, the capitalist can respond by extending hours of labor and by increasing the intensity of the labor he has employed.

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3. Since an extension of the individual hours of labor of his workers is not possible (hours having been fixed by law or by direct action on the part of the workers), what other recourse does the capitalist have for extending aggregate hours of labor? If he wishes to recover his profits, the capitalist can extend hours of labor, not by extending individual hours of labor, but by employing more workers. Two hundred workers, each working four hours, can create as much value as one hundred workers each working eight hours. If hours of labor are cut in half, the capitalist can offset this reduction by doubling the aggregate number of workers he employs.

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4. The first and most immediate effect of a fall in profit subsequent to a reduction of hours of labor is an increase in the employment of labor power; this being the simplest methods of recovering the lost profits for the capitalist. From where do these additional workers come? In first place, they come from the domestic industrial reserve army of workers; those workers who are by and large utterly cut off from all productive employment in normal times. This includes, in the United States, for instance, a huge mass of black and brown workers, who, owing to rampant anti-blackness, have been permanently imprisoned in the labor reserve (often literally by mass incarceration in prisons). It also includes, a rather sizable number of migrant workers who travel to the US in search of employment. And, finally, it includes a very large number of workers who are now employed, but in jobs that produce no value, such as defense industry workers, and household labor of the very wealthy. These superfluous workers too form a part of the reserve army, but their labor is seldom tapped for productive purposes even in normal times; they are a hidden reserve of capital, whose cost is expressed in rising prices rather than increased unemployment..

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5. A reduction of hours of labor that goes so far as to reduce profits to zero has an effect of forcing capital to tap all available sources of additional labor power for the production of surplus value, i.e., profit. It may be asked how a fall in profits results in increased employment of labor power? Surely the capitalist has fewer profits with which to hire labor power. To ask this question is to ask how, at the very nadir of a depression, when profits are at their lowest, capital finds means to increase investment. A surplus population of workers is accompanied by a mass of excess capital, which, like these workers, is unable to find productive employment for purposes of self-expansion of the invested capital. According to Marx:

“This plethora of capital arises from the same causes as those which call forth relative over-population, and is, therefore, a phenomenon supplementing the latter, although they stand at opposite poles — unemployed capital at one pole, and unemployed worker population at the other.” Capital, volume 3, chapter 15

The same forces than condemn a huge mass or the worker population to the industrial reserve army, produces a huge mass of excess capital that cannot find productive investment. A reduction of hours of labor operates so as to require the mobilization of this excess capital for capital’s self-expansion.

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6. A second question might now be asked: Even if a reduction of hours of labor has the effect of increasing employment, isn’t it true that with increased employment of labor power, labor costs (wages) also rise? Two hundred workers working four hours may indeed produce as much value as one hundred workers working eight hours, but the wages of two hundred workers is twice that of one hundred workers. If, before, half the day was spent producing the wages of one hundred workers, now the entire day is spent producing the wages of two hundred workers. What have I missed? The absolute mass of surplus value is still zero.

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7. Marx’s answer is that more value can be created in less time with the two hundred than could be created by the one hundred previously. While the duration of labor is the same in both cases, 800 hours, with 200 workers the density of the labor time is increased. Based on England’s experience in the 19th century, Marx discovered that fewer hours of work allowed the workers to work with greater intensity. This enabled them to produced the same amount of value in less time, or, conversely, more value in the same period of time. Although one would assume that value is fixed in relation to its duration, Marx discovered that a labor period of shorter duration created the same or more value than the labor of a longer duration. -Capital, Volume 1, chapter fifteen

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8. The effect occurs because the worker is no longer being worked to the point of exhaustion and can maintain greater attention to task for shorter periods. Although we assume the workers works with the same intensity over the entire workday, this is obviously not true. Labor after lunch, for instance, may have entirely different productiveness than labor when the worker is fully rested first thing in the morning. In the course of the labor day the workers capacities are progressively used up, degraded, by the act of labor itself. A shorter period of labor exerts less degradation than a longer period of labor, allowing the worker to be more productive. The conclusion seems to be that two hundred workers, each working four hours, will be more productive than one hundred workers, each working eight hours.

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9. Modern industrial studies seem to confirm Marx’s observations. See, for instance, studies drawn on labor hours experiments in Sweden.

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10. But we haven’t exhausted the impact of labor hours reduction on the mode of production. Increased employment of labor power, the employment of the industrial reserve, migrants and superfluously employed workers, is the most readily available means for offsetting a reduction of hours of labor, but it has material requirements itself. These additional workers cannot be employed unless the means upon which they will labor has also increased. This means additional raw materials, additional machines, additional technology and science, less waste in production and greater efficiency. In a phrase, a reduction of hours of labor calls upon the entire mode of production to increase its productivity by intensifying the employment of improved methods of production.

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11. A reduction of hours of labor, therefore, has the effect of accelerating capital’s own revolutionizing of methods of production. The aim of this revolution is to further reduce the necessary portion of the labor day in order to increase the unpaid portion. Reducing hours of labor not only has the effect of reducing that portion of workers who are locked out of productive employment and decreasing the mass of excess capital sloshing around the economy, (which is the primary source of speculation), it also accelerates capitalism headlong into its inevitable demise. The most important result of reducing hours of labor is the effect this reduction has on capitalistic automation.

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12. This impact should be prized by communists; it is the very one we seek because it is the creation of the material foundation for communism. We don’t, in first place, fight to reduce hours of labor in order to reduce unemployment — in fact we want to abolish all employment — but because a reduction of hours of labor, in and of itself, makes possible a world without labor.