Three reasons why my argument for reducing hours of labor may suck big time

There seems to be three major categories of objections to my argument on hours of labor:

First, what material impact will a reduction of hours of labor have on the operation of the capitalist mode of production?

chair-on-the-beach-1082-2560x1440A fall in the rate of profit produced by shorter hours will cause bankruptcies in a lot of marginally profitable industries. The capitalists will not simply respond to a fall in profits by paying workers more.  When hours are reduced, the capitalists will unleash an assault on the living standards of workers. Thus, a reduction of hours of labor will lead to an offensive against the social conditions of the working class.

Second, is a reduction of hours of labor incompatible with, or opposed to, the conventional Marxist argument that the working class must seize political power?

My argument exudes a hostility toward the working class seizing political power. My proposal for reduction of hours of labor treats the capitalist mode of production as an abstraction from the class struggle. Marx insisted that objective economic processes were an expression of class forces. The idea that reduction of hours of labor can lead to communism on its own is economism. Essentially, ending capitalism means abolition of private ownership of the means of production, and the capitalist nation-state system. In isolation from the seizure of state power and nationalization of private property, proposals for changes to the mode of production, like reduction of hours of labor, are reformist.

Third, will the working class itself support a demand for reductions of hours of labor?

Workers believe reducing hours of labor will reduce their income. Hours of labor reduction might result in a shift in such that most workers will actually see their wages fall; although some rise. With a reduction of hours of labor, wages might increase relative to profits, but still fall overall. A reduction of hours under capitalism will only intensify the social crisis of the working class.


I’m pretty sure that does not exhaust the list. But they are interesting arguments anyways. Question 3 really is the killer, because if workers think they will be poorer they will never support it. Oddly enough, this was never a problem in France’s 35 hours law. Also average hours of labor in the US right now is about at 34.6 hours per week. Depending on the industry, hours of labor in October varied from 45 hours per week (mining) to 26.2 hours per week (leisure/hospitality). Retail, for instance, regularly runs a work week of less than 32 hours. Most people in the private service sector never see 40 hours per week.

I will probably address these three objections separately in the near future.

After Ferguson: Labor, competition and the long ugly history of American white working class racist mob violence

As expected, a mostly white Grand Jury declined to indict the murderer of Michael Brown, who was gunned down without provocation on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. This is in keeping with 1599a long history of racist mob violence that has been directed at the black working class by their white counterparts dating back at least to the early 19th century. As Justice Taney argued in his Dred Scott decision nearly 160 years ago, the grand jury decided that African-Americans were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

The time for mere political protest is past, we are confronted by the necessity to overthrow the regime of white supremacy and the capitalist mode of production which daily, hourly, constitutes this white supremacy and provides the material basis for its continuing existence. Like any difficult venture, this effort must be undertaken based on a sober examination of how white supremacy is constituted by capitalist relations of production in order to demonstrate why nothing short of the abolition of the capitalist mode of production itself will put an end to white supremacy. I hope to demonstrate this very thing in the essay that follows and thus provide radical activists with material for agitation for the complete overthrow of capitalism and white supremacy.

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Hours, Wages and Poverty: On the introduction to Kathi Weeks’ “The Problem with Work”

I have been spending some time reading Kathi Weeks, “The Problem with Work”, and find myself unable to get beyond this sophomoric statement in her introduction:

“I focus on the demands for basic income and shorter hours for two reasons. First, like the demand for living wages and others, they represent important remedies for some of the problems with the existing system of wages and hours. A guaranteed and universal basic income would enhance the bargaining position of all workers vis-il-vis employers and enable some people to opt out of waged work without the stigma and precariousness of means-tested welfare programs. A thirty-hour full-time work week without a decrease in pay [my emphasis] would help to address some of the problems of both the underemployed and the overworked. The second reason for focusing on these demands—which I think distinguishes them from many other demands for economic reform, including the demand for a living wage—is their capacity not only to improve the conditions of work but to challenge the terms of its dominance. These demands do not affirm our right to work so much as help us to secure some measure of freedom from it.”

I am not going to argue this passage characterizes the whole of her book, but I find it bizarre that a Marxist like Kathi Weeks considers a demand for a 30 hour week utopian. She seems to have no clue that there is a relation between hours of labor, on the one hand, and wages and prices, on the other. Moreover, she never mentions the connection between hours of labor, competition among workers and racism, misogyny, anti-migrant sentiments.

186225ebe6_93261970_o2Coupling the demand for a six hour day with a demand for no decrease in wages or a demand for basic income actually shows why Marxists secretly fear the demand for fewer hours of labor is utopian: If there is the slightest danger the subsistence of the working class will fall if hours are reduced, no worker will ever support it. A very large section of the working class lives hand to mouth at a level where they would be homeless and hungry within a month. Another section would be in the same position within a couple of months, once they have exhausted the meager savings.

What compels the working class to sell their labor power is that they cannot live without doing this. But Weeks implicitly “admits” in her introduction that a reduction of hours will have a negative impact on their income, that it will further reduce their subsistence. How are you going to sell this “utopian” demand to the working class? Do you tell them that being idle, homeless and destitute is an improvement on their current position in society?

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“Karl Marx was right, but it doesn’t really matter.”

I have been reading this short piece by Matthew Yglesias “Where do profits come from? The obscure feud that tears left-of-center economics apart”. As the title states, the crux of the discussion is the failure of neoclassical economics to offer a credible alternative to Marx, who asserted that labor is the source of both wages and profit. The inability of the bourgeois simpletons to offer a credible alternative to Marx’s explanation results in a rather bizarre set of assumptions:

“Heterodox economists argue that it is circular to say that the profits accruing to the owners of capital are determined by the marginal productivity of capital, and then to calculate the quantity of capital in part by asking how profitable it is to own the capital goods.”

takethebigbagLabor theory says that profits are simply that portion of value created in excess of the value of the wages of the workers, while mainstream economics holds profits result from the marginal productivity of capital.

It should be clear that mainstream economics has already conceded this point to labor theory: labor is the source of all profit. No matter how this argument is obscured in all the gibberish of neoclassical economics, it has been demonstrated both theoretically and practically that there is only one source for both wages and profit: the labor of the worker.

As Yglesias points out:

Mainstream economists went through a few iterations of attempting to refute this objection before essentially concluding that it was correct. This is, indeed, one of the reasons why people on the heterodox side often seem to be embittered. The mainstream concedes the point, but tends to deny its significance.

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Some (not so) final thoughts on privilege theory and Marxism

6: Communism and the complete indifference of the most privileged workers to the rest of the class

If “orthodox” Marxists were being the least bit honest in the debate over privilege, they would have to admit that the overthrow of the capitalists does not of itself and cannot eradicate inequality within the working class. police-beating-kids-2Why they make such a fuss on this point and cannot accept this admission as the starting point of an honest debate is beyond me. They continue to insist that getting rid of the capitalists of itself is sufficient to end all inequality, when this argument is clearly untenable.

No less than Marx himself explained that the overthrow of the capitalists does not do away with inequality, but only the inequality that rests on private ownership of the means of production. This form of inequality is done away with — no longer is a parasitic stratum of society able to live off the labor of others. However it must be admitted openly, as Marx himself did, that getting rid of the parasites will still leave us confronting what is likely to be historically unprecedented levels of inequality within the working class.

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Notes on privilege theory’s critique of Marxism (5)

Continued from here

5. Marx as the first privilege theorist?: Competition and privilege in labor theory

At the beginning of this series on privilege theory, I suggested that the debate between privilege theory advocates and “orthodox” Marxists could be simplified to two conflicting propositions:

Proposition 1. With the overthrow of capitalism, racism, sexism and all forms of oppression will be done away with.


Proposition 2. Racism, sexism and other forms of privilege cannot be ended simply by overthrowing capitalism.

744px-Omaha_courthouse_lynchingI called the first the “orthodox” Marxist position, but my employment of the phrase was never meant to suggest the “orthodox” view was the position of either Marx or Engels. In fact, contrary to what is now known as the “orthodox” Marxist position, Marx himself agreed with much of what might be called the privilege theory position.

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Notes on privilege theory’s critique of Marxism (4)

Continued from here

4. Privilege theory, racism and competition within the working class

The argument that the victory of the Nazis resulted as much from the divisions within the working class as from the rule of the capitalist class and its state is difficult for most Marxists to accept.

For Marxists, the divisions within the proletariat are one thing, while the rule of capital is another, separate, thing. The relation between the two is rarely discussed and, if at affirmative-action-in-america-is-a-total-failureall, only in relation to the effort the capitalist class makes to employ the divisions of the proletariat against it. In this very limited, naive, context, the divisions within the class are ascribed to the domination of the bourgeois class and its ideology. If finally the Marxist must accept that there are divisions within the proletariat like racism, nevertheless he does this only to insist these divisions are part of a strategy of divide and conquer pursued by the other class. The idea that the divisions within the class have material causes apart from the efforts by the capitalists to exploit them, is seen as some sort of anti-working class hysteria.

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Notes on privilege theory’s critique of Marxism (3)

Continued from here

3. Privilege theory, fragmentation and the rise of Hitler

One of the problems with the debate between the privilege theory advocates and opponents is the lack of perspective. In particular, the legacy of slavery in the Adolf Hitler with Hess and Goebbels, c 1939-1945."United States has few counterparts in the rest of the world. This appears to put both advocates and opponents of privilege theory in the position of trying to analyze what at first seems like a one off event. Making sense of the issues in the debate is harder because there are few other examples of a working class as riven by the sort of unrelenting racism the US working class suffers (South Africa, Rhodesia and Israel come to mind).

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Notes on privilege theory’s critique of Marxism (2)

Continued from here

2. The special duty of white communists …

When Noel Ignatin put his pen to paper to raise questions about the strategy of the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) in 1966, he probably had no idea it would give birth to what we now call the privilege theory critique of ignatievMarxism. Many of his ideas are drawn from works and writings that predate his own argument and from a historical schism within American communism itself over the “Negro Question”.

However, in his polemic Ignatin was concerned to make a single and over-riding the point: White revolutionaries had a specific responsibility in their revolutionary work to carry out education among the white working class in the US of the situation of the black workers and to convince white workers to put aside their racist attitudes and support the cause of black liberation.

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Notes on privilege theory’s critique of Marxism (1)

I have been spending time trying to wrap my head around privilege theory. What follows is the result of that investigation. Since it runs more than 6000 words, I have decided to break it up into a series of smaller posts, which I will publish over the next week. –Jehu

1.    Privilege theory as a critique of Marxism from within Marxism

sadwhiteguyPrivilege theory was custom made for post-war Marxism because, basically, with the just dawning realization that the class struggle appears to have all but disappeared in society in the post-war period, they don’t have much of anything else to discuss when it comes to politics.

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