Home > shorter work time > Reply to @sushi_goat: How does reducing hours of labor work?

Reply to @sushi_goat: How does reducing hours of labor work?

September 28, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Tweep @sushi_goat asked me a series of questions regarding reducing hours of labor yesterday. I made a stab at it, but I want to give a fuller answer here.

My argument on the impact of a shorter work week on “the economy” is based on Postone’s and Kurz’s analysis of superfluous labor. In his magnificent book, “Time labor and Social Domination”, Postone showed that superfluous labor is a necessary result of late capitalism and includes labor time that is necessary from the standpoint of the capitalist mode of production but superfluous from a higher mode of production. To call labor superfluous therefore does not imply that it appears empirically in this form within the capitalist mode of production itself. Within the capitalist mode of production this superfluous labor appears to be necessary.

In his own groundbreaking essay, “The Apotheosis of Money“, Kurz further defined this category from the standpoint of a theory of capitalist circulation as a whole. While he enumerated how this form appears in the form of many particular and obvious types of labor time, his real contribution was to nail down its implications for the capitalist mode of production. What Kurz showed is that this superfluous labor time consists in the production of values that do not reenter the capitalist reproduction process. To give an example: the production of an ear of corn is the production of a value; but if the corn is not consumed by a worker productively employed in the capitalist production process, it cannot reenter capitalist self-valorization. The corn could be eaten by a soldier, but the soldier as living labor does not replace the ear of corn in the capitalist production process, thus the value is consumed unproductively.

Unfortunately, what Postone has not done (yet?) nor Kurz before his death is extend this analysis to the category of Marx’s organic composition of capital. If this had been done, I think it would have yielded very important results regarding the significance of their ideas.

First we begin with three important formulas in Marx’s theory:

1. c:v, or the organic composition of capital. This is the ratio of constant capital (c) necessary to set in motion a given quantity of living labor (v). In Marx’s theory, this ratio is always increasing.

2. s/v, or the ratio of newly produced surplus value (s) to the mass of living labor expended in its production (v).

3. s/(c+v), or Marx’s formula for profit, expressed as the ratio of newly produced surplus value (s) to the mass of constant capital used up in production (c) and the mass of living labor expended in this production (v).

For the purpose of analysis, I assume the total labor time of society can be divided into a mass of productively expended labor time (Vp) plus a mass of unproductively expended labor time (Vu). In other words, let the mass of the total labor time of society be represented by V, this total labor time can be further divided into productively employed labor time (Vp) and Postone’s and Kurz’s unproductively employed labor time (Vu)

On this basis the total labor time of society can be represented by the equation

4. V = Vp+Vu

Again on this assumption, the organic composition of capital (C:V), can be further defined as:

5. C:(Vp+Vu)

The problem here is that in Marx theory the organic composition of capital can only refer to capital’s self-expansion, which implies all labor is employed productively. So, the formula, C:(Vp+Vu), must be understood only as the prospective (or fictitious) organic composition of capital. Which is to say, this formula applies only to how the organic composition must appear, consistent with capitalist relations of production.

In this formula, however, it appears the expenditure of unproductive labor time reduces the organic composition of capital — as several writers have asserted, most notably Chris Harman, who argued:

“There is a vicious circle. Reactions by individual firms and states to the falling rate of profit have the effect of further reducing the resources available for productive accumulation. [47]

“But the effect of unproductive expenditures is not only to lower the rate of profit. It can also reduce upward pressure on the organic composition of capital. This was an insight used by Michael Kidron to explain the “positive” impact of massive arms spending on the system in the post-war decades. He saw it, like luxury consumption by the ruling class and its hangers-on, as having a beneficial side-effect for those running the system – at least for a time.

“Labour which is “wasted”, he argued, cannot add to the pressure for accumulation to be ever more capital intensive. Value which would otherwise go into raising the ratio of means of production to workers is siphoned out of the system. Accumulation is slower, but it continues at a steady pace, like the tortoise racing the hare in Aesop’s fable. Profit rates are weighed down by the waste, but do not face a sudden thrust into the depths from a rapid acceleration of the capital-labour ratio.”

In fact, this was complete nonsense. The organic composition of capital is not affected by the growth of superfluous labor time. So-called “economic growth” appears to stagnate not because superfluous labor makes capital less productive, but because the increase in the productive capacity of labor requires increasing quantities of unproductive labor time.

In the capitalist mode of production Vp+Vu can only appear as V — which is to say as abstract homogenous labor in general. It cannot, under any circumstances appear as discrete quantities of qualitatively differentiated labors Vp and Vu. On the other hand, only productive labor can produce surplus value; unproductive labor as Kurz argues, does not produce surplus value but only mediates its distribution. This has implications for my analysis.

Since, Vp+Vu can only appears as V, it would appear that a reduction of labor hours imposed on capital must result in a proportional reduction of both productive and unproductive labor. For instance, it would appear reducing hours of labor from 40 to 24 would have an equal impact both on General Motors and Federal employment. In fact, this cannot happen: General Motors as a productive capital produces surplus value that is distributed as the profit of GM and state expenditures. Given this, the effect of reducing hours of labor must have a greater impact on the state, or a defense contractor, than it has on productively employed capital.

Why? If we plug our substitute for V into Marx’s formula for surplus value, it might become clearer:

The formula 2. s/v becomes:

6. s/(Vp+Vu)

In this case, only Vp produces the surplus value shared between both sectors Vp+Vu.

And the formula for profit s/v+c becomes

7. s/c+(Vp+Vu)

Since the aim of capital is self-expansion, and, therefore, of the production of surplus value, this has implications for the impact a reduction of hours has on the mode of production. Labor time Vu produces no surplus value, although it will mediate the distribution of the surplus value produced by Vp. The reduction of total hours of labor will not have a proportional impact on the two mass of labor time, Vp and Vu, but a disproportional impact — reducing the relative proportion of labor time, Vu against Vp.

This is because, 1. a reduction of labor time Vp, reduces the mass of surplus value, and therefore, the mass of s in the formula for profit, s/c+v; while, 2. the reduction of labor time Vu, has no impact on the mass of surplus value, and, therefore, no impact on the mass of s in the formula for profit, s/c+v. On the other hand, the increase in the mass of labor time expended productively (Vp) will increase the mass of surplus value s, while the increase in the mass of unproductively expended labor time (Vu) will not.

The distribution of the mass of profit produced by productively employed capitals is, in part, settled by competition between the class of owners of capital. Under conditions of a general and comprehensive reduction of hours of labor, productively employed capital can increase their profits by reducing the expenditure of labor in unproductive forms, such as the state sector. While the state is incapable of increasing itself, by increasing its unproductive consumption of the surplus value produce by productively employed capital, i.e., by raising taxes or borrowing.

In the first place, a general and comprehensive reduction of hours of work — e.g., from 40 to 24 hours — must result in a reduction first of the state sector. In the second place, it must result in massive shift of the employment of labor from unproductive capitals (e.g., finance) to productive capitals. The losers in such a reduction would be first the state, second those capitals producing for the state (defense contractors) and financing it (Wall St.). By contrast, the productive employment of capital becomes more profitable, although the actual quantity of surplus value produced is smaller. Although less actual surplus value is produced, less also has to be shared with a mass of unproductive capitals and the bloated state.

This must increase demand for the productive employment of labor power, along with an increase in the wages. The rise in wages would in turn force productively employed capitals to further rationalize expenditures of labor through methods that improve the productivity of labor. Although employment is rising, along with wages, the actual improvement of the productivity of labor compels the further reduction of hours. In this way, there is both a rapid increase in the material living standards of the mass of society and more disposable time.

Reducing hours of labor not only means free disposable time for the mass of society, it pays for itself by compelling capital to revolutionize the labor process and increase the efficient employment of existing labor power. In Capital somewhere, Marx argues the capitalist class is, historically speaking, only the stewards of the total capital, who used their position to the disadvantage of the mass of society. This might not have been obvious in his day, but with the professional class of managers who have since arisen and now shuttle between Washington and Wall Street, and the resulting division of ownership from effective control of capital, it is clear this is all that class ever was. Paris Hilton’s family has long since retired to the vocation of coupon-clipping, while her functions have been assumed by these parasites.

For this reason, I think the most fanatical opponent to reducing hours of labor will be the state itself, and, in second place, the managers of the capitalist firms directly dependent on the state. Reducing hours of labor cannot be thought of as a political demand; it is, rather, a textbook example of what Kurz called antipolitics.

The key thing to understand here is that with Postone and Kurz we get two entirely antithetical forms of labor time that result in two contradictory definitions of value.

Marxists have yet to integrate Postone’s and Kurz arguments into an updated analysis of capital in the tradition of Marx reflecting post-war capitalism, although both arguments rest directly on Marx’s own analysis. It makes it difficult, if not impossible, therefore, to convince Marxists of the significance of a demand for reduction in hours of labor.

This provides with a practical route to what Kurz called the internal breach in the capitalist mode of production itself:

Where and how to begin, within the existing capitalist form of socialization which rules over all reproduction, with the intention of finding in the latter, so to speak, an internal breach and to break free of it, to take the first step, to point out a formulable beginning for social emancipation?

Clearly, this crisis presents us with a mass of unemployed workers, who are having great difficulty finding work in the advanced countries, side-by-side with a regime of austerity that only promises to intensify unemployment. If this breach can be exploited by a concerted call on the Left for a reduction in hours of labor, the stage may be set for a series of events carrying all of society beyond this historical phase.

  1. September 29, 2012 at 7:18 am

    Postone and Kurz’s conceptions of abstract labor are diametrically opposed. For Postone, abstract labor is a social relationship consummated in the phenomenal forms of the capitalist mode of production. For Kurz, abstract labor is a nominal abstraction to refer to physiological expenditure, i.e., Kurz’s conception of abstract labor is PRE-MARXIAN, it’s essentially the classical Ricardian conception of value as “embodied labor time.”

    The notion of Postone and Kurz as co-thinkers is an idiosyncracy of a small group from Nuremberg, who liked what Postone had to say about things like anti-Semitism but who had not yet translated TL&SD into German (which first occured in 2003).

    Kurz, to his credit, acknowledged the differences and made them the subject of a series of polemical essays aimed at I.I. Rubin, Michael Heinrich, and Postone. Kurz’s erstwhile comrades in the Krisis group, however, continue to promote the myth of “Postone our co-thinker.” A couple of Francophone and Anglophone devotees have reimported this teutonic myth.

    Postone can be more accurately situated in the broader tradition of the German “New Reading of Marx”, encompassing Hans-Georg Backhaus, Helmut Reichelt, Michael Heinrich, Nadja Rakowitz, and the various “state debate” theorists (Joachim Hirsch, Heide Gerstenberger, Johannes Agnoli). Of the early Russian form theorists, I.I. Rubin and Evgeny Paschukanis are extremely important predecessors of this school. In the English-speaking world, the “Open Marxism” school attempts to reconcile this German form analysis with theories of class composition and struggle inspired by Italian Operaismo.

    • September 29, 2012 at 9:46 am

      Thanks for your comments, Ellen. 🙂

      First, let me state I am not the least bit interested in the history of sectarianism among dumb Marxists. I have had my fill of their shit, which does nothing to advance the cause I am interested in. When one of these tiny Marxist sects does something significant, like overthrow capitalism even in their own neighborhood, let me know.

      Second, I entirely agree with you that Postone and Kurz have diametrically opposed conceptions of value. Sectarians take this difference as profound and unbridgeable. I, on the other hand, prefer to think of it as Marx did: some contradictions make their way not from textbooks into society, but from society into textbooks. The difference between Postone and Kurz has this latter quality, I think. Their differences amount to no more than a confirmation of the fact that value now has two different and contradictory expressions, side by side with two different forms of homogenous abstract labor, two different forms of money. This is exactly as we should expect, if, indeed, capitalism is approaching its endpoint.

  2. September 30, 2012 at 5:53 am

    I’d say that the opposition between Kurz and Postone is found in the texts they are basing their arguments upon.

    Kurz’s collapse theory is derived from the “machine fragment” of the Grundrisse. Whereas Postone refers primarily to Marx’s Capital. The apparent paradox identified by Marx in the machine fragment had already been resolved by Marx in Capital with the introduction of the category of relative surplus-value.

    There is a bad tendency by Marxists to regard Marx’s writings as some kind of coherent whole, starting all the way back with his earlier texts. But this is simply not the case. For example, the Grundrisse does not even have the distinction between labor and labor-power!

    As for theories of the automatic collapse of capitalism, I simply cannot grant them any credibility. It’s a comforting bedtime fairy-story orthodox Marxists tell themselves to absolve themselves of the difficult task of actually struggling to end capitalism.

    • September 30, 2012 at 1:07 pm

      I do see your argument, but then we have four options when evaluating Postone and Kurz:

      1. Postone is right and Kurz is wrong

      2. Kurz is right and Postone is wrong

      3. Both are wrong

      4. Both are right

      Do you have an idea one way or another which of these four options apply to this problem?

      • September 30, 2012 at 2:35 pm

        I suppose in broader terms, Postone is “right” and Kurz is “wrong”, but Postone writes very little about finance in TL&SD, since he remains at a meta-level explication of value theory.

        As an explication of Marx’s writings on finance and money, I like Heinrich’s _The Science of Value_, but you’ll have to wait another year before an English edition is available. In terms of empirical analyses of finance, I like what some German-language writers like Ingo Stützle and Thomas Sablowski write,, but there is very little by them in English. The newspaper analyse und kritik has a nice little dossier of all the articles they’ve done on the crisis, you could maybe use Google translate to browse around a bit: http://www.akweb.de/themen/daten_finanzmarkt.htm

      • September 30, 2012 at 7:24 pm

        Thanks Ellen. I love links!

  3. Noa Rodman
    September 30, 2012 at 11:10 am

    Kautsky argued reducing hours of labor: http://marxists.org/deutsch/archiv/kautsky/1937/03/arbeitszeit.htm

    Also Trotsky referred to Sliding Scale of Hours in his transitional program. Maybe he got the idea from Kautsky?

    I think Bellofiore (leading member of our beloved Marxist academy) is against the idea because it supposedly would undermine the bargaining power of strikers.

    • September 30, 2012 at 1:16 pm

      OMG This Kautsky article is amazing. Is there a translation of this text anywhere. The Google translation indicates it has much to offer on this subject!!!!!

      Thank you for showing it to me!

  4. Noa Rodman
    September 30, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    It is and you’re welcome, but no, there isn’t a translation as so often is the case with Kautsky’s writings. Orthodox social-democrats like him (or Fedor Dan) of the interbellum were not Rooseveltian neo-capitalists/Keynesians/state-capitalists, but would appear to today’s “Marxists” rather as Misesian Liberterians (they weren’t, but to today’s “Marxists” they would appear to be such), for instance on inflation Kautsky wrote:

    “As soon as the exchange of commodities is effected by money, by a commodity which everybody accepts, the perpetual value of the money commodity and then of the money tokens, which represent specific quantities of the money commodity, becomes an important consideration; for it becomes possible to buy a commodity and to pay for it later. It also becomes possible to sell a commodity without expending the money received for it upon a fresh purchase. If the value of money does not remain constant, if it falls, after the lapse of some time it does not represent as much labour as formerly, and the possessor of this money has expended in vain a portion of his labour or that of his wage-workers. If I sell at its full value a commodity which embodies ten hours of work and the money which I receive only represents nine hours of work after the lapse of a month, I shall have worked one hour for nothing. If the depreciation of money is due to the printing of notes by the State for reasons that are not economically justified, I shall have worked for nothing for the benefit of currency speculators.

    Inflation, or the depreciation of money, far from being a socialist measure, is a mode of taxing the people for the benefit of the State and of the speculators. On the one hand, it constitutes a tax which is more unjust, more oppressive, more disturbing, and more senseless than any other kind of tax. It is an indirect tax systematically imposed, and, in addition, is a means of enriching the most injurious elements of the capitalist class. The growing misery which is a consequence of inflation, necessarily creates the increasing wealth of the profiteer, who was neither to be put down by the guillotine at the time of the assignat economy, nor by the Cheka of the Bolshevist Terror.

    Under all circumstances, inflation is a terrible evil. In a capitalist State it does not affect the workers alone, but also many capitalists. The profiteer thrives under it, but the rentier is plunged into poverty.”


  1. April 10, 2013 at 12:07 pm
  2. April 17, 2013 at 12:12 pm

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