Home > political-economy, shorter work time > Another reply to Mr. Lebowitz: Job growth policies are a scam

Another reply to Mr. Lebowitz: Job growth policies are a scam

We received this note from Michael Lebowitz, whose work we earlier criticized for his neglect of the issue of hours of work:

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?


Our answer follows:

First, to the question, “Where do you get this information… and based upon what assumptions?” We assume only what the data tells us, namely that, as of 2009, employment in our economy consisted of one productive job for every six non-productive jobs. By a productive job, we simply mean a job that results in the production of a real good – a car, a house, or a 42 inch wide screen, high definition, plasma television. This one to six relationship may seem accidental, but it is not, while capitalism creates massive expansion in productivity of labor, it also requires an expansion of activity to waste this labor.

Since 1958 that waste has grown in magnitude with each increase in the productive capacity of society, as the chart below details.

There has been an increasing number of service jobs for each productive job (Source: B.L.S. B-1)

In 1958, the economy added merely 1.8 service jobs for every job which produced a real good; by 1975, that had increased to 2.62 service jobs per one goods producing job; by 1991 it had jumped to 3.8 service jobs per one goods producing job. It finally topped out, just before the crisis broke in 2007, by adding 5.2 service jobs per each goods producing job. Just two years later, the economy now requires more than six service jobs be created for each goods producing job created. It was for this reason that Obama with his stimulus bill proposed to spend nearly $200,000 to create each $20,000 to $30,000 job in industry.

Over the fifty years since 1958, the economy has added a net total of 416,000 goods producing jobs, while it added 79 million service jobs – jobs which produce nothing, add no value to the economy, and do nothing to improve the living standards of working people. And, this does not include the millions who are, at any time, but especially now, without any job at all.

If after all this you could state that somehow the material living conditions of working people improved by any significant measure as a result of the growth in service jobs, you would have an argument – but, of course, you can’t demonstrate any such improvement. By every measure, in fact, the economic circumstance of working people has declined since 1958.

Job creation policy is a scam perpetrated on working people by Washington and nothing more than this.

So, why were the jobs added? Because, with the continuous improvement in the productivity of labor, the economic system demands a continuous increase in the number of consumers relative to the number of producers. The staggering addition of 79 million jobs to the economy was not driven by any technical need to increase employment to satisfy human need, but because without such addition of superfluous activity, the current work week could not be maintained. This growing mass of superfluous labor has the effect of lowering the overall productivity of employed labor, and, therefore, of prolonging the necessity for work.

(As an aside: We think this implies that capitalism has two contradictory forms of necessary labor time (or, perhaps, it is more accurate to state that necessary labor time is internally contradictory). The first, as you noted, is strictly concerned with the time that can be spent on the production of a good. But, capital is not just a system of production, it is also a system of consumption. And, in this latter case, consumption plays a necessary role in the realization of profits – it forms the substance into which the mass of use values produced can be absorbed.)

Second, to your point that “need” in the capitalist economy, “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.”, we can only argue that we live in a capitalist economy – if we lived in some other kind of economy, our opinion on this matter might be different. We think this is an important point, since it is not altogether clear that some future society might approach the issues you raise in anything like the approach taken in present society. For example, a society where work is abolished would experience no conflict between time devoted to educate and nurture children and that required to pay bills – because paying bills would disappear along with the jobs.

A society that is in the process of abolishing work – such as your socialist scheme – would clearly not be trying to include these issues in its concept of necessary labor, precisely because it is trying to abolish necessary labor. If anything, its concept of what is included in necessary labor would be even more strict than that found in our own society – applying to the realm of consumption the strict definition of what is socially necessary as is found in the realm of production. Only by restricting necessary labor to what is truly socially and materially necessary, can more time be freed to care for our children, ourselves, and our community. In our own society the constant drive to expand labor to maintain an unnecessarily long work week is precisely what leads to the commodification of personal activities such as child-rearing, eating, community life – and, of course, nail care.

Third, in answer to your question, “… what are ‘true needs’? And, who will decide? The state? Some philosopher-kings? The mass of people currently living in capitalist societies?” We can only state that this, as everything else, must be decided democratically. However, this is not the same as saying such a democratic decision can be arrived at arbitrarily. So long as hours of work are longer than necessary, society will have to recognize this fact in the form of activity which is wholly aimed, not at improving their material standard of living, but at diminishing, weakening or worsening that standard of living. It goes without saying, this reality cannot be imposed on society by some party-state regime, it must be arrived at empirically by the members of society themselves. Given the choice between leaving their children in a daycare center for eight or ten hours a day, or nurturing them in those critical first 36-60 months of life, we believe people will always choose the latter.

  1. Threecrow
    March 25, 2010 at 9:48 am

    My guy’s wicked smart.

  2. michael
    March 25, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    I don’t agree with your basic premise. I asked you for your data on necessary labour, and you replied by offering information about ‘productive’ jobs compared to ‘unproductive’ ones. By productive, you mean jobs that produce ‘real goods’ as opposed to services, which produce nothing, add no value to the economy and do nothing for the standard of living of people.
    By your definition, a job producing snowmobiles is productive, presumably necessary and must be valued whereas the activity of a teacher, nurse, doctor, community worker is useless and unproductive. These are categories warped by capitalism, and we need to break out this ideological straitjacket [which they didn’t do in the USSR— and your distinction is precisely the one that was used in Soviet income accounting]. Speaking as a Marxist and socialist, we need to start from an entirely different premise than capitalism— the premise of human development, the need to create conditions by which ‘rich human beings’ and ‘rich individuality’ can be fostered. From that premise, the activity that you are assigning to the garbage can must be especially valued.

  3. michael
    March 25, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    BTW, Charley, Don’t call me ‘Mister’!

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