Exacerbating the tendency — why labor hours must be reduced

by Jehu

A redditor,  jakehmw, tore into my argument on hours of labor. He/She made six pretty important points:

  1. While I argue that wage labor must be abolished, jakehmw points out that the proletarian sells their labor-power for a wage out of necessity due to their being propertyless. This cannot change, he asserts, until the means of production are under common ownership. The proletarians must always compete with each other, being propertyless.
  2. jakehmw says my argument on the abolition of wage-labor and intra-proletarian competition is nothing new. Communism has always been defined as an association of producers producing for use. My ideas in this vein are just a rehash of Marx’s early works.
  3. jakehmw asserts that my view Marx suggested depressed wages and competition were linked to overly long hours of labor, (“the more he works, the less wages he receives”), is not entirely correct. Marx did not intend to show that workers are displaced by overly long hours of work, says jakehmw, but by the development of machinery and the division of labor.
  4. jakehmw  thinks the abolition of labor cannot be brought about by a progressive reduction of hours of labor to zero. To abolish wage labor, the means of production must become the commonly owned property of society. Reducing the working day to zero only results in an impossible halting of both the production of use-values and value.
  5. In jakehmw view, the proletariat can abolish itself only by abolishing private property and bringing society’s means of production under common ownership. With this abolition of private enterprises, commodity production must cease to exist out of necessity, since production, having become common property, is consciously regulated as opposed to the law of value and the fetishism of commodities.
  6. Finally, jakehmw takes exception to my idea that the working class must take control of its labor power. He points out that labor-power is one’s ability to perform labor which is reproduced through the material reproduction of one’s physical capabilities and the mental reproduction of one’s mind and senses through socializing, etc. It is both their mind and body — how can that be common property?

Let me say at the outset that, by and large, I accept most of the propositions outlined in these critical statements, although I might quibble with a formulation here or there.

*****

I mostly agree with jakehmw

For instance, while I might disagree with the idea that Marx misstated the relation between hours of labor and wages (“the more he works, the less wages he receives”), I do agree that his main point in Wage Labour and Capital is that workers are largely being displaced by the development of machinery and the division of labor.

I can even agree with the proposition that reducing hours of labor to zero may only result in an impossible halting of both the production of use-values and value. But in this latter case, my acceptance of his criticism is conditional: to the extent living labor is required for production of commodities, reducing hours to zero would only result in the complete cessation of production of commodities.

The problem here, of course, is the “to the extent…” part.

If living labor is not required for production of commodities, reducing hours of labor to zero has no impact on their production. Moreover, to the extent that living labor is not required for production of commodities, we can safely dispense with this unnecessary labor without negatively affecting the production of commodities.

The big problem today is assessing how much of the labor we expend is required for production of use values and how much is only necessary for capital, i.e., because labor is the source of surplus value, the source of profit. The production of value and the production of use value are not at all the same thing. Marx clearly establishes this in the opening chapter of Capital. Not all labor produces value and not all labor produces use values.

If every minute of the working day is required for production of use values, where does the massive public sector come from? This sector produces no commodities, no use values, yet typically consumes 40-60 percent of the GDP of every country. Moreover, recent Marxist literature suggests that as much as 60-75 percent of the economies of the United States and the European Union may be composed of superfluous labor — i.e., labor that produces nothing. If this labor produces nothing as some pretty heavy-weight Marxist academics insist, getting rid of it would have absolutely no impact on the production of use value and even the production of value.

Exceptions to the rule

The point is that it is entirely possible for both my critic on Reddit to be right and my argument still to be correct. This is not an either/or situation; rather, it is a matter of looking for chinks in capital’s armor.

To give an example, it is entirely possible for jakehmw to be correct that proletarians must always compete with each other because they are propertyless and also for workers to overcome this competition through their association under certain definite conditions and for a limited period of time — this is what unions accomplish, for instance.

In this case, jakehmw is correct as a general rule, while my idea is only correct under certain clearly defined and limited conditions.

Yes, workers in general relate to one another on hostile terms as competitors, which has, in recent history, led to bloody horrifying consequences, but this hostile conflict can be attenuated in the short run if hours of labor are dramatically reduced.

Another example is the apparent disagreement between us over the cause of falling wages: Yes, the decline in wages results from the fact that less labor is employed in the production of commodities, but this decline also upsets the competitive equilibrium among workers as they scramble to find new jobs and accept even lower wages than before.

This process can, for a time, lead wages to actually fall below the value of labor power. In fact, Marx introduces this mechanism into his theory in volume 3 to explain why the rate of profit may not immediately fall to zero, under the heading, “Depression Of Wages Below The Value Of Labour-Power”:

“This is mentioned here only empirically, since, like many other things which might be enumerated, it has nothing to do with the general analysis of capital, but belongs in an analysis of competition, which is not presented in this work. However, it is one of the most important factors checking the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.”

The Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall

To paraphrase Keynes, in the long run capitalism is dead, but in the short run it can make our lives very miserable — or we can accelerate its demise by rethinking a few things about strategy.

In this regard we should not forget that the falling rate of profit only operates as a tendency; it is not an absolute law. I think a critical part of our strategy should be to exacerbate this tendency through our direct action.

What would this look like?

In first place, according to Marx in volume 3,

“The rate of profit does not sink because the labourer is exploited any less, but because generally less labour is employed in proportion to the employed capital.”

It should be our aim to progressively force the reduction of the labor employed in the production of commodities. As proletarians we can only do this by progressively reducing the duration of labor we will expend in return for wages.

During a strike, the workers assert their demands by withholding their labor from the capitalist until their demands are met or they are forced back to work. By withholding their labor, they temporarily halt the production of value and use values. Reduction of hours of labor has the same effect on production of values and use values as a strike, but unlike as in a strike, the reduction of hours of labor target profits, not all production.

A reduction of hours of labor, so long as it does not extend to the labor time required for production of the value of wages, should have no effect on the subsistence of the working class. But it will be devastating for the profits of capital. We should set our sights on that point in the labor day where a reduction hits profits not wages. Communist economists should be able to tell us where this point is.

Exacerbating the tendency

If hours of labor are reduced to the point where profits are forcibly reduced to zero, we can pretty much predict the impact this will have on capital — in large part because Marx has already described it in detail in chapter 15 of volume 3:

“A fall in the rate of profit and accelerated accumulation are different expressions of the same process only in so far as both reflect the development of productiveness. Accumulation, in turn, hastens the fall of the rate of profit, inasmuch as it implies concentration of labour on a large scale, and thus a higher composition of capital. On the other hand, a fall in the rate of profit again hastens the concentration of capital and its centralisation through expropriation of minor capitalists, the few direct producers who still have anything left to be expropriated. This accelerates accumulation with regard to mass, although the rate of accumulation falls with the rate of profit.”

Briefly, once the rate of profit falls, only the very biggest capitals can survive and operate profitably. The smaller capitals — those not enjoying special positions in the mode of production — are expropriated or altogether go bankrupt. Accumulation accelerates, and this results in a further fall in the rate of profit. Which is to say, by reducing hours of labor, we can intensify the competition among the capitalists.

And this is important, because, in chapter 32 of volume 1, Marx explains that the process of accumulation drives the capitalists to kill each other off:

“As soon as this process of transformation has sufficiently decomposed the old society from top to bottom, as soon as the labourers are turned into proletarians, their means of labour into capital, as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet, then the further socialisation of labour … takes a new form. That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the labourer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many labourers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralisation of capital. One capitalist always kills many.”

I think most communists assume the working class kills the capitalists, but not so, say Marx. We don’t kill off the capitalists; the capitalists kill each other off. We can exacerbate this suicidal behavior on the part of capital simply by increasing the pressure on the rate of profit by progressively reducing hours of labor.

One last point

I want to address one last point raised by jakehmw: this related to his point that I suggested the labor power of the workers must become common property of society. jakehmw is misreading my statement, (or perhaps I stated it ambiguously):

 “Until the working class takes its labor power under it common control, proletarians must always compete with each other.”

I think jakehmw is reading this as me saying labor power has to be the common property of society. In opposition to the commonly held view that the working class must seize the means of production (machines, factories, money, etc.), I suggested that the working class has to bring its own labor power under its control. This statement does not mean that I think individual labor powers each of us possess must become the property of society; rather, it means we have to regulate our social labor in common, through our association.

As Marx explains in “The Fetishism Of Commodities And The Secret Thereof”, conscious regulation by the social producers of their labor is what does away with the law of value:

“Its apportionment in accordance with a definite social plan maintains the proper proportion between the different kinds of work to be done and the various wants of the community. On the other hand, it also serves as a measure of the portion of the common labour borne by each individual, and of his share in the part of the total product destined for individual consumption. The social relations of the individual producers, with regard both to their labour and to its products, are in this case perfectly simple and intelligible, and that with regard not only to production but also to distribution”

The critical step in this process is conscious regulation of the act of production by the social producers, not a worthless legal title to the means of production. This critical step is taken when the proletarians decide together when the working day begins and when it will end and impose this schedule on capital and the state.