Speculative presence – 5
So, we have our hidden culprit in the catastrophe behind the post-apocalyptic drama that unfolds in The Day of the Triffids. And the culprit turns out to be the same perpetrator Keynes implicated for being behind the Great Depression: technological innovation.
The question I need to address now is how I can turn this highly destructive potential, latent in technological innovation, into a useful productive force to construct the material foundation of my speculative fictional communist society?
In chapter 15 of Capital, volume one, Karl Marx offers a suggestion taken from an actual 19th century British historical example: it turns out that the relation between technological innovation and labor redundancy may be largely reciprocal. It is true that technological innovation can create technological unemployment, leading to severe economic contractions like the Great Depression, but it appears that the reverse is also true: dramatic reductions of hours of labor greatly accelerate technological innovations and boost productivity.
Marx examines the data for these reductions in chapter fifteen.
In 1844 the working day in Britain was capped at 12 hours. In 1847, that cap was lowered again to just 10 hours. The improvements in productivity from the two reduction appear to come from three different sources:
First, within certain limits, what is lost of the labor day by shortening its duration is gained back by the increased tension of labor power expenditure. Better rested workers are able to labor with more energy, consistency and attention.
Second, with the shortening of the working day and the improved capacity of the worker, the capitalist firm employs improved machinery to systematically squeeze out more labour within the limits of the new working day. This is effected by speed ups and by concentrating more machines under the control of a single worker.
More than 150 years later, these two observations by Marx are still supported by research.
These responses by capital to limitations on the working day meant that early efforts to limit hours of labor actually had the combined paradoxical effect of increasing profits fivefold, rather than reducing them!
According to figures cited by Marx, between 1838 and 1850, profits in English cotton and other factories averaged 2.7% annually. Profits jumped to 14.3% between 1850 and 1856 after hours of labor had been capped at ten hours.
By slashing the working day to twelve hours in 1844 and again to ten hours in 1847, parliament forced British industry to innovate and become more productive in order to restore its profitability.
There cannot be the slightest doubt that the tendency that urges capital, so soon as a prolongation of the hours of labour is once for all forbidden, to compensate itself, by a systematic heightening of the intensity of labour, and to convert every improvement in machinery into a more perfect means of exhausting the workman, must soon lead to a state of things in which a reduction of the hours of labour will again be inevitable. On the other hand, the rapid advance of English industry between 1848 and the present time, under the influence of a day of 10 hours, surpasses the advance made between 1833 and 1847, when the day was 12 hours long, by far more than the latter surpasses the advance made during the half century after the first introduction of the factory system, when the working-day was without limits.
It would seem, then, that to create the material foundations of my speculative fictional communist society I can call on a dramatic reduction of hours of labor to unleash the sort of technological innovation that would result in a society with characteristics very similar to the fictional London of The Day of the Triffids. The difference, however, would be that no one need be disabled, no one is unemployed (as occurs in a apocalyptically severe version of the Great Depression) and there are no people-eating sunflowers.
Okay, cool, but what fun is that?
Where’s the drama?
Where’s the conflict?
Where are the flesh-eating zombies?
I want a communism with real warts!
If the quintessential bourgeois revolution, the French Revolution, had room for Robespierre and the Reign of Terror, certainly we can have Stalin in our speculative fictional communism!