Home > political-economy, shorter work time > What help for the 99ers? (Part two)

What help for the 99ers? (Part two)

December 17, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

In my rant yesterday, What help for the 99ers?, I made an argument why folks who support the 99ers should nevertheless oppose extension of unemployment compensation beyond 99 weeks. That argument made what might be considered an obscure connection between the unemployed and the large body of “public servants” who compose the state machinery of repression, totalitarian control and imperial expansion.

Let me add a few remarks to clarify how I see this connection.

To do this, we have to look at Karl Marx — not the infamous icon of Marxism, but the real guy, the writer and, to some extent, anthropologist of capitalist society — Often the two get conflated, so that, for instance, the utterances of any knucklehead running around with a copy of the Communist Manifesto sometimes is mistaken for the actual words written down on paper by the original person.

In Marx’s model of capitalist society, the unemployed worker is not an accidental occurrence and should not be treated apart from the labor force itself. The unemployed worker is a reserve force available to capital for those periods where new profitable opportunities or requirements for additional labor suddenly open up. The idled worker makes it possible for these new areas to be exploited by providing the additional labor capacity necessary to take advantage of them. This reserve also serves a function of depressing wages during times of depressions, when capital rationalizes its operation to resume profitable expansion by pressing wages below their cyclical average.

Thus, unlike economists, who treat unemployment as an aberration, a defect, or failure of the market, Marx believed a relative surplus population of workers was essential to the functioning of the capitalist system of production itself. The constant expansion and contraction of the labor reserve is consistent with his comprehensive model of capital in which, for example, the price of a good had to fluctuate according to the laws of supply and demand, and only reflected the value of the good through the moving average of these fluctuations. Capitalism is a social system of production carried on by millions of individuals acting privately — unless the system itself had flexibility to adjust to billions of differing and even contradictory decisions each day it would soon break apart.

In times of unusually vigorous expansion, and even for war, the great mass of this population of unemployed would be “called up” (both metaphorically and actually in the case of the military draft) to fill needed positions in industry or on the battlefield. Thus, the “liquidity” of the reserve source of labor power is not simply a matter of business concern, but also a matter of state. So, for example, it is not a surprise to see a statement by White House in the debate over the DREAM Act explaining why the act would be useful for its ongoing military operations:

Secretary of Defense Gates has written to DREAM Act sponsors citing the rich precedent of non-citizens serving in the U.S. military and stating that “the DREAM Act represents an opportunity to expand [the recruiting] pool, to the advantage of military recruiting and readiness.

The size of the reserve labor force is not determined by the means available to expand the scale of productive activity, but to expand activity that creates profit and for purposes of State. But, this purely cyclical movement in unemployment is not of the least concern to us, because it merely masks a longer term trend identified by Marx: the conversion of this reserve labor force from a relative oversupply of labor into an absolute oversupply of labor.

Over time the improvement in the productive capacity of labor — by augmentation with new types of machinery, new methods of organizing work, application of new scientific knowledge, and technology — is increased to such an extent that the relative proportion of workers who can be employed productively shrinks and a permanently unemployable reserve of labor emerges. (Today, this unemployable reserve consists not only of the 99ers, but also a massive hidden population of young people who have never entered the labor force and who, in addition,  compose the largest part of the swollen prison population.) This permanently unemployable reserve — a growing stratum of the labor force rendered entirely superfluous by the advance of industry — loses its opportunity to engage in productive labor and is reduced to serving only as a market for the output of the productively employed labor force.

Along with the emergence of a permanently displaced population of workers we find the emergence of the fascist state — a peculiar type of state organism combining both a permanent war footing with an extensive social safety network of state provided services. Although this state is typically identified with German Nazism and Italian Fascism it is not limited to them, but emerges in all the industrialized nations during the Great Depression, and is the essential feature of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The social basis of these fascistic entities is the general clamor among all classes in capitalist society for state action to preserve the conditions of existence of the society; namely, the purchase and sale of labor power. It is for this reason the fascist state appears on the scene as the embodiment of the national interest and asserts the populist idea of a national rebirth through a pan-class coalition.

The charge of this state, as imposed by general social demand on it, is to employ the unemployable, and hence, to provide the demand for the output of industry. From this point, political-economy becomes concerned with the problem of consumption of the massive and ever growing output of industry. The fact that the emergence of an absolute oversupply of labor implies the possibility of a drastic reduction in hours of labor for all in society, and, therefore, the awareness of the possibility that society might be entirely freed from labor and the system of domination inherent in the division of labor is, from this point, not only ignored, but actively suppressed. Thus, we see, from the end of World War II, that discussion of the idea improving productivity would lead to the abolition of labor disappears from economic textbooks — to be replaced by the phrase, “the lump of labor fallacy”.

The erasure from economic textbooks of the idea that a reduction and ultimate abolition of labor was the probable outcome of improving productivity foreshadowed last night’s news that the House of Representatives had abandoned the 99ers to their fate. As we showed in the case of the Obama administration, Washington is not merely unaware that unemployment can be wiped out by drastically reducing hours of work, it is hostile to the idea.

Why is Washington ignoring the 99ers, and why is it hostile to the great question of work time reduction? We will answer this in the next post.

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