The remarkable thing about Srnicek and Williams’ book, Inventing the Future, is that it brings together technology, labor and income into a concise political program for the Left. The defect of the book is that it attempts to do this in a superficial (merely political) way that neglects the inner relation between the three elements.
Technology, for instance, is not an isolated factor in political economy but influences both labor time and income distribution in the capitalist mode of production. The authors seem to vaguely understand this, but their grasp of the subject is limited.
In a passage I cited in my last post, Srnicek and Williams explain that automation of production reduces the demand for labor. They then explain a reduction of hours of labor reduces the supply of labor available for capitalist production. However, and oddly, at this point, Srnicek and Williams pull their punch: they never go on to explain the demand for the complete automation of production is, at the same time, a demand for the complete abolition of wage labor; nor do they explain that with the complete automation of production and the complete abolition of wage labor, all income — both wages and profits — must fall to zero.
This means the demand for complete automation of production called for in the book is identical with a demand for the complete abolition of wage labor. It also means that, in the long run, technical progress, wage labor and wages are not simply loosely related elements of a purely political program, but three different expressions of one and the same thing.
Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams have written a book, Inventing the Future, proposing the complete automation of production and a reduction of hours of labor. The proposal is fascinating and stands head and shoulders above the gruel typically on offer on the Left. Nevertheless it is poorly argued and in serious need of additional theoretical development.
The meat of the book can be found in chapter 6, where the authors discuss the Holy Grail of Left Politics, non-reformist reforms — reforms that, of themselves, have revolutionary implications, that force society to go beyond existing capitalist relations. To this end they propose four demands they believe are necessary, “to start building a platform for a post-work society.”
These demands are:
1. Full automation of production 2. The reduction of the working week 3. The provision of a basic income 4. The diminishment of the work ethic
Here is the minimum wage from 1938-2016 in nominal terms
And here is minimum wage (1939-2016) adjusted for its purchasing power in terms of gold
As you can see, according to the second chart the purchasing power of the minimum wage (as measured by gold) peaked in 1970 and fell sharply after — never recovering its 1970 purchasing power. Based on gold, all subsequent increases in the minimum wage failed to keep up with the declining purchasing power of the currency.
Assuming wages influence employment, we would expect to see aggregate working time to reflect the declining purchasing power of the currency. This is just the corollary of the proposition higher wages reduce aggregate employment. If higher wages reduce employment, and if the relation is commutative, we should expect lower wages to increase aggregate employment.
“For a while, it looked like Keynes was right: In 1930 the average workweek was 47 hours. By 1970 it had fallen to slightly less than 39. But then something changed. Instead of continuing to decline, the duration of the workweek stayed put; it’s hovered just below 40 hours for nearly five decades. So what happened? Why are people working just as much today as in 1970?”
Why haven’t hours of labor dropped as Keynes predicted in 1930? This is a question many writers have raised in the aftermath of the crash of 2008. David Graeber, for instance, pointed to Keynes prediction of fewer hours of work, but noted it never materialized. Instead, argues Graeber, the working class today performs an amazing amount of unnecessary labor that he calls “bullshit jobs”.
“[Technology] has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. … Yet virtually no one talks about it.”
Given its ultimate result, this may sound bizarre, but I think Marxists need their own Manhattan Project for the 21st century. Rather than aiming to level cities, this project will openly aim for the complete automation of production and the complete elimination of wage labor.
A global movement that sets this almost inconceivable aim will capture the imagination of humanity and it is likely the only thing that can put communism back on the agenda in the advanced countries.
Following substantial suggestions by @ChuckBaggett, I have significantly revised this post to reflect his input. I want to thank him for his contribution. The improvements here largely reflect his helpful input. Any errors or omissions are my sole responsibility.
I received this very good question on Ask.Fm:
“how do you sell a 4 hour work day to workers?”
My full answer is too long for the Ask.Fm format, so I decided to answer it here. My goal is to provide material in the form of talking points for those who want to agitate for a reduction in hours of labor in their unions, communities and public meetings.
I think the best arguments for reducing hours of labor can be made by focusing on what almost everyone agrees are the most important social ills of capitalism facing us today (even if they do not identify capitalism as the cause): poverty, climate change, inequality, unemployment and stagnation, and the lack of democracy.
Although it might not be obvious to most workers, the number of hours of labor we perform each week have a direct impact on each of these social ills to a degree that seldom understood.
I have been reading an essay on work time reduction, Eight Hours Too Many?, written by E. Kerr. I wasn’t impressed by Kerr’s argument and I have five reasons why I think Kerr’s argument is unimpressive.
1. The ambiguity of “work”
My first objection may seem a bit esoteric, but please bear with me as its significance will become more evident as my argument unfolds.
By “nice ideas’ I mean who can argue with a higher minimum wage, affordable housing, eliminating taxes on income under $40,000, and getting out of NATO. As a Left (radical) party platform of attractive reforms it is not bad overall, but hardly anything that screams “Vote Communist!”
In a phrase, the election programme of the Communist Party of Canada is boring as fuck!
It is necessary to ask whether this platform offers any real reason for people to stop voting for whichever party they vote for now and take a chance on communists? Given that communism as a political idea and as a model for society has huge negatives in polling among voters, what is offered in this platform? The answer to that question is literally nothing at all that probably could not be found in any other vaguely radical party platform.
I just finished reading this article by Michel Husson & Stephanie Treillet on the significance of labor hours reduction, Liberation Through Vacation. I want to offer some thought on why I think it is, on the whole, as important as it is disappointing. I make these points, not because I disagree with what I think was the intended thrust of their article, but because certain folks will go after Husson’s and Treillet’s argument. For instance, A. Kliman has already taken David Graeber and others to task for their weak arguments on labor as just another attempt to rebrand social democracy. (See Kliman’s, Post-Work: Zombie Social Democracy with a Human Face?) My point here is to expose weaknesses in their argument because Husson and Treillet’s main thrust is, after SYRIZA’s election, the most important development to emerge from the crisis in 2015.
“So there is pressure growing, from within and without, to force a split in Syriza, with the Left Platform leaving the parliamentary group, and Tsipras now forced to rely on centre-left and Karamanlis-wing conservative votes to get any deal through the Hellenic parliament.”
Mind you, this is all over a debt that everyone knows cannot be repaid, no matter who is in power. It is not just that the EU is using the debt to beat SYRIZA down, SYRIZA seems intent on using the debt against itself.
Of course, a split in SYRIZA cannot fix Greece’s debt problem, as bondholders and anyone with an ounce of common sense knows:
“Let’s start by considering the raw numbers. Greece can’t borrow big money on the global markets, because its €320bn debt is – rightly, I think – seen as unpayable. No level of austerity bearable by Greek society could pay down the debt.”
The previous government lied about the state’s finances, capital is fleeing, the ECB is waging economic warfare against SYRIZA; and the ECB and Eurogroup have no desire to come to an agreement with SYRIZA. As the EU adds pressure from the outside, Mason argues, the Left Platform is organizing for a split from the inside.
This can’t go on, explains Mason. At some point, something somewhere has to give.