The Weird Netherworld of Barbarism

The odd case of superfluous labor time

Based on the assumptions Marx employs in Volume 3, superfluous labor time should not exist under capitalism. At the same time, the mode of production is the production of surplus value, i.e., labor time that is superfluous to society. chile-protest-001These two ideas mean that when superfluous labor time does actually emerge in the social labor day, a crisis should erupt and the capital produced during this superfluous labor time should be devalued. So all of the evidence pointing to a large amount of superfluous labor time in the economy suggests something else is at work. This something else has allowed the accumulation of superfluous labor time within the social labor day for almost seven decades.

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Platypus Question No. 6: Is there a concrete demand for the immediate abolition of wage labor?

In question 6, Platypus asks if there is a concrete political demand for the immediate abolition of wage labor:

“If the abolition of wage labor should indeed be a goal of emancipatory politics, what forms of politics or concrete demands should be pursued to attain this goal? How do we get from ‘here’ to ‘there’?”

The question is somewhat confused: Since the state itself is maintaining and enforcing the conditions for capitalist reproduction by extending hours of labor, a political demand for the abolition of labor is not possible. The problem is further complicated by the fact the Left faces is that it conflates opposition to fascist state economic management with opposition to social progress. To resolve these complications, we need to go back to my definition of overwork and unemployment.

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Platypus Question No. 5: Overwork, unemployment and the state

5. What remedies exist to address overwork and unemployment?

For the fifth question, the Platypus group asks what might be considered an adequate remedy to overwork and unemployment.

“5. Historically, the left has sought to remedy the problems of overwork and unemployment, through various means: full employment; a guaranteed minimum income regardless of employment; and/or shorter working hours for those employed. Which of these, if any, do you consider to be adequate responses, and how, if at all, should the Left pursue them?”

The question itself is evidence of a fallacy that is deeply embedded in Left politics, a fallacy Platypus seems to explicitly accept in their introduction to the questions:

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Platypus Question No. 4: The Great Depression, the Left and the Politics of Work

In question 4, the Platypus group asks about the historical influences that inform the politics of work:

“4. In the history of the Left, what examples do you regard as informing your attitude towards the politics of work and unemployment today, and what is relevant about these touch points?”

In think the seminal event in the formation of the Left’s attitude (not my attitude) toward the politics of work and unemployment is its inability, eight decades later, to come to grips with the Great Depression. To a large extent Marxism is precisely at the same point it was in its classical period and in some important aspects it has regressed.

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Platypus Question No. 3: Overwork and unemployment

In question 3, the Platypus group asks about the twin social diseases of overwork for some and unemployment for others:

“3. If the widely observable phenomenon of overwork and unemployment is a necessary feature of capitalist society, why and how is this so? What kinds of social necessity, in the present organization of the world, do you take to be underlying this phenomenon?  Then, given your understanding of the nature of this necessity, what would it mean to radically transform it?”

This question, as it is posed, is completely misleading; it is imprecise. First, from the point of view of the working class, what constitutes overwork? Asked this way, it is obvious that the premise of the capitalist mode of production is the overworking of the laborer, her unpaid labor. Her necessary labor — labor required for her existence — is only made possible by the performance of labor that is superfluous to her. “Overwork” is, from the perspective of the worker, not unusual, but the very premise of her physical existence. Moreover, from the perspective of the capitalist, the overworking of the worker to the point of exhaustion is a premise of his existence.

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Platypus Question No. 2: Is the distinction between “work” and “labor” politically relevant?

In the second question, the Platypus group asks whether the distinction between purposeful human activity and labor is politically relevant.

“2. A distinction is often drawn between “work” as purposeful human activity (presumably existing before and after capitalism), on the one hand, and “work” in the sense of labor in capitalism, where the worker undertakes purposeful activity for money under threat of material scarcity (typically in the form of wage labor), on the other hand. Is this distinction politically relevant when thinking about work? In a free society, would work manifest in one or both senses?”

I think this is one of the most important sources of confusion among communists: the confusion of “labor” with “purposeful human activity”: Labor has nothing whatsoever to do with purposeful human activity. As Marx explained in the first chapter of Volume 1 of Capital, in labor theory, labor is solely concerned with the production of value, not material wealth. Purposeful human activity, concrete useful labor, by contrast, is the production of material wealth, of objects required to satisfy human needs. The production of value and the production of material wealth have no direct connection between them.

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Ten Questions from Platypus on the Politics of Work: A response

The Platypus group is sponsoring a series of discussion entitled the “Politics of Work”. The first discussion was held at the University of Massachusetts, with other discussions planned at various locations.

According to the group:

It is generally assumed that Marxists and other Leftists have the political responsibility to support reforms for the improvement of the welfare of workers. Yet, leading figures from the Marxist tradition– such as Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky– also understood that such reforms would broaden the crisis of capitalism and potentially intensify contradictions that could adversely impact the immediate conditions of workers. For instance, full employment, while being a natural demand from the standpoint of all workers’ interests, also threatens the conditions of capitalist production (which rely on a surplus of available labor), thereby potentially jeopardizing the system of employment altogether. In light of such apparent paradoxes, this panel seeks to investigate the politics of work from Leftist perspectives. It will attempt to provoke reflection on and discussion of the ambiguities and dilemmas of the politics of work by including speakers from divergent perspectives, some of whom seek after the immediate abolition of labor and others of whom seek to increase the availability of employment opportunities. It is hoped that this conversation will deepen the understanding of the contemporary problems faced by the Left in its struggles to construct a politics adequate to the self-emancipation of the working class.

To focus the discussion, the organizers provided three quotes from various writers and ten questions. I thought I would try my hand at answering the questions myself, since they seem to me to be highly pertinent. The questions will each be addressed in a separate blog post.

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