Home > political-economy > The Golden Grimace (Part Ten: Superfluous work)

The Golden Grimace (Part Ten: Superfluous work)

A soup line during the Great Depression

The primary objective of our policy is having more work done, more product produced and more people earning more income. It may be desirable to have a given amount of work shared among more people. But that’s not as desirable as expanding the total amount of work.

-Larry Summers, Chief economic adviser to the Messiah

The oddest thing about superfluous work is how necessary it became to society. The more productive labor became, the more it became the over-riding concern of government policy that stupendous quantities of labor time be expended toward the most wasteful and unnecessary ends.

Think of it this way: By harnessing technology, one worker can produce enough to support two families, then five, ten, and eventually thirty or a hundred families. The use of technology is fantastically productive and fantastically profitable for businesses.

There is, in theory, no material limit to how much the productivity of labor can be extended. There is, however, a social limit: the application of technology to the labor process requires an ever larger market for the ever increasing volume of goods produced. Without a market, no good – no matter how cheaply it can be produced – can be sold. At the same time, if the volume of output per worker is growing, the number of people needed to fill jobs to produce the total output eventually starts to shrink.

On the one hand you have a whole lot of unsold goods, because no market exists for them. On the other hand, a whole lot of people without jobs, because labor has become so productive they are redundant.

Boom. Great Depression.

However, it isn’t massive unemployment, nor even the equally massive glut of unsold goods that leads to the debasement of money from gold. It is the fact that only by debasing money from gold, can this ungodly great – and socially dangerous – mass of unemployed labor powers be brought together with the mass of unsold goods – and, thereby, be converted into labor in its superfluous form. Moreover, in order to serve as means to bring this glut of labor power and unsold goods together, we must presuppose a massive hoard of gold money already withdrawn from circulation and sitting idle in the safe deposit boxes of a handful of private owners, and laying on the sunless floors of central banks.

This further condition, presupposes, in other words, that exchange (or, in common parlance, the market) itself has broken down, threatening social production and plunging society into a deep irreversible crisis. On the one hand, one labor power can supply the material requirements of ten or a hundred. On the other hand, ten or a hundred labor powers wasted in needless activity becomes the precondition of the productive employment of the one.

This fantastically bizarre circumstance is already implied in the hidden contradiction presented by money: that it is. at once, the means for measuring the value of commodities, and, the means for facilitating the exchange of these commodities. In the first instance, money finds its use as a measure of social wealth, the ability to command greater and greater masses of material wealth. In the second instance, money finds its use in normal daily transactions. Economic crises converted this contradiction between these two functions or instances of money into an absolute contradiction wherein money as measure of social wealth comes to rest in the safe deposit boxes of a handful of sociopaths and on the sunless floors of a central bank vault, while its role as means to facilitate transactions languishes.

Further, the absolute contradiction between money as measure of value (i.e., as a measure of social wealth) and money as means by which transactions are facilitated, presupposes that value or socially necessary labor time has surrendered to its own inherent internal contradiction: that it is at once the measure of work productively expended on the creation of a commodity, and, simultaneously, a measure of society’s need for that class of commodities.

While the former measure of socially necessary labor time – as the labor time productively expended on the creation of the commodity – is inextricably tied to the labor time required to produce some actual definite quantity of gold, the latter measure of socially necessary labor time (demand) now takes the form of fluctuations in the market price of gold. As socially necessary labor time in the first form diminishes, socially necessary labor time in the latter form increases.

But socially necessary labor time is nothing more than the expenditure of a definite quantity of human labor power, i.e., the expenditure of a definite quantity of human mental and physical capacity. We are, therefore, presented with the thoroughly bizarre and historically unprecedented circumstance that the incessant reduction of the value of labor power results in the incessant expansion of the value of this same labor power; that the expansion of society’s capacity to produce leads directly to the diminishing of its power to produce; and, that material wealth takes the form of abject poverty.

It is only on condition that general commodity production – i.e., the production and exchange of useful things – has taken the specific historical form of the buying, selling, production and consumption of labor power – i.e., the reduction of the sum of all commodities to their most abstract form: namely, the commoditization of the human capacity to work – that value is converted into its opposite: the universal indebtedness of the worker and the universal despoiling of nature.

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