Home > General Comment > A reply to Mr. Lebowitz…

A reply to Mr. Lebowitz…

February 26, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

“There’s an old saying that if you don’t know where you want to go, any road will take you there.  As I’ve said on many occasions, this saying is mistaken.  If you don’t know where you want to go, no road will take you there. In other words, you need an understanding of the goal.  You need a vision for the future.”

Michael A Lebowitz, Socialism: The Goal, the Paths, and the Compass

It’s not what you look like when you’re doing what you’re doing; it’s what you’re doing when you’re doing what you look like you’re doing.”
–Charles Wright, Express Yourself (1971)

Mr. Lebowitz makes an argument that, on the surface, sounds logical, however, what we actually are concerned with is the real movement of society, which is to say, the ultimate result of the capitalist process, whether this process is understood by the members of society or not. To understand why we refer to the real movement of society, rather than some goal or vision, requires us to understand the nature of capitalism as a form of social labor.

The United States Declaration of Independence states that all men are created equal, but as we know, it was penned by a man who was systematically exploiting and raping his slaves. Did this statement make men equal? Did this statement make the master-slave relationship into a voluntary association? Of course not.

So what is the significance of the Bolivarian Constitution of Venezuela? It has no significance. It is just a piece of paper. Even with all the workers’ councils, and all the workers’ participation and decision-making in the world, it has no significance. We have to state this clearly, so no one doubts that we are not enamored of our own fine words, as inspiring as they may be.

We know these things have no significance because we know the American worker – who imagines herself a member not of an international proletarian class, but rather, a member of some ill-defined middle class – is, through his or her actions every bit a participant in the real movement of society as any stalwart communist party member in Vietnam.

The real movement of society is what society is actually doing, irrespective of what it thinks it is doing, when it is doing it. It is the result of processes that are at work behind our back generated by our own action – which processes may or may not be apparent to us.

It is, therefore, possible to get to a goal without wanting it, or even knowing of it; and equally possible to have absolutely no idea where on the map you are, which direction you are headed, and how long it will take. This only means your car (society) is driving itself – it is a run-away. This, as you can imagine, makes it very dangerous to everyone.

Capitalism abolishes work. This is all it does. It is very efficient at abolishing work.

It does this by systematically converting work that is necessary to society into work that is superfluous to society. In turn, this ever expanding superfluous work becomes a condition for the expansion of society’s conditions of existence. Thus, capitalism is associated with an amazing amount of waste and inefficiency.

If socialists understood this, they would advocate forcibly ejecting this waste from the economic system by a simple means: reducing hours of work. This would not change the process, but it would accelerate it. And, it would subject that process to our control.

  1. michael
    March 10, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    I guess I really didn’t understand any of this as a ‘reply’ to my talk in Cuba; however, the argument on the workday doesn’t make much sense to me. ‘Capitalism abolishes work’? What can that possibly mean? See my ‘The Socialist workday, the Capitalist workday’, a talk I gave to Venezuelan workers a few years back on the eve of MayDay as part of the struggle to transform the concept of the workday; you can find it online on the Web in a number of places [e.g., Links, etc].

    • charley2u
      March 10, 2010 at 11:10 pm

      I guess you don’t – which means, for all your socialist leanings, you actually get no further toward the object of this discussion than Mr. Galbraith and Saint Paul. How has it escaped you that the entire point of social labor is to decrease the time society spends on necessary work; to free working people from the filthy division of labor and make it possible for them to enjoy free unfettered self-directed activity?

      You need to stop lecturing until you figure out why you are a socialist, and not a liberal!

  2. michael
    March 13, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    Ha ha, you obviously don’t know anything about me to suggest I have anything in common with either of your 2 buds. Try reading the piece I referred to and tell me what’s wrong with that. In my forthcoming book, ‘The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development’, I note: ‘Emphasis upon reducing necessary labor in order to give us free time is a demand from within capitalism—one infected by capitalism because it is fixated upon the horror of the workday under capitalism. Contrary to Mészáros and others, the time for the full development of the individual should be understood not as “disposable time,” “free time” that can be put to “creative use” by self-realizing individuals but directly social time. In short, the focus should be not on the reduction of necessary labor but upon its transformation—a new, socialist definition of necessary labor, which incorporates “the time on a daily basis for education for self–managing, for our work within the household and our work within our communities” (Michael A. Lebowitz, “The Capitalist Workday, the Socialist Workday,” MRZine, April 2008). With the abolition of capitalism, Marx acknowledged, necessary labor time “would expand to take up more of the day.” Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 667.’
    If you treat me seriously, I’ll do the same with you. Otherwise, enjoy your ‘vanity press’.

    • charley2u
      March 17, 2010 at 8:30 am


      I did read the piece, and it offers food for thought. But, in the end, it is disappointing. While you and I agree that necessary work will be transformed both quantitatively and qualitatively, I differ with you on an essential point: What is superfluous work in either type of society – capitalist or socialist. At present, in the United States, only about 15 percent of the workday is devoted to necessary work – with about 85 percent devoted to purely superfluous fictitious economic activity. Even if we agree that what constitutes necessary work is expanded by 300 percent under your scheme, this would leave more than half of our work time lacking any economic justification.

      You assume (along with my 2 buds) that this superfluous work time would be expended purely as leisure – but is this true? (Perhaps, you do not believe this, but you never address superfluous work in your piece.) I argue that this free time is, and will be, the dominant source of wealth in the future: people working without being pressed to produce a necessary product, because all of the necessary work has been completed. I would also argue that this superfluous time, if it is not set free, must end in the collapse of your socialist scheme – as it is currently leading to the collapse of the US economy.

    • charley2u
      March 17, 2010 at 4:45 pm

      Let me add on other thing: Whether we are speaking of capitalism, socialism, or even the “Bolivarian Constitution of Venezuela,” work is dead. This is what must be emphasized when discussing the work day. Everything else is a distraction.

  3. michael
    March 21, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    Hi Charley,
    I understand where you are coming from but I have problems with your claim that so much of current activity is superfluous. You write: ‘At present, in the United States, only about 15 percent of the workday is devoted to necessary work – with about 85 percent devoted to purely superfluous fictitious economic activity.’
    Where do you get this information… and based upon what assumptions? If we want to talk about ‘necessary labour’, it is presumably determined by the level of needs and the level of productivity required to satisfy those needs. I’m sure we agree that the needs considered in capitalism are only those that take a commodity-form for which we require money [‘the true need’ the system produces–Marx]. Thus, the set of needs and the time required is clearly deficient because it doesn’t include the need/time to nurture and educate children, the need/time to prepare and cook food-commodities, the need/time to travel to work, the need/time to act as citizens within a community, etc. [See my ‘Beyond CAPITAL: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class’ for an exploration of Marx on needs.]
    When you talk about the reduction of necessary labour and the extent of superfluous labour, then, you clearly must have in mind (a) the needs for capitalistically-produced commodities and (b) the productivity involved in producing those. Presumably you argue that (a) has become increasingly ‘fictional’ and has expanded far, far beyond (c) ‘true’ needs and that productivity in the production of (c) has grown so substantially that necessary labour has fallen now to extremely low levels.
    On a personal, emotional level, I can agree with you. The problem, though, is what are ‘true needs’? And, who will decide? The state? Some philosopher-kings? The mass of people currently living in capitalist societies? To what extent does your argument about necessary labour come down to a cultural critique?

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