As we mark the passage of another Labor Day, it’s worth taking stock of the state the US working class finds itself in amid the Great Recession. It is, in a word, dismal. Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson summed the situation up rather neatly in a recent editorial: “A union-free America. Growth down a little, employment down a lot. Profits and productivity up, wages flat. Health-care costs up for workers, down for employers. The return of a thriving middle class? Dream on.”
Since the near collapse of the global economy two years ago, US workers have been very quiet. Aside from the takeover of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago in December 2008, the ongoing Mott’s strike in upstate New York, and a couple of other high-profile actions, most palpable discontent with the state of things has found public expression through the Tea Party and other manifestations of right-wing anxiety and rage.
Hearteningly, a large coalition of labor and progressive groups known as One Nation Working Together is organizing for what should be a large scale march for jobs in Washington, DC on October 2. I will be there, and every progressive with the time and wherewithal to go should be there too. Millions of Americans are suffering from un- and underemployment, and the short term focus of the Left should be pressuring the government to create jobs and extend unemployment insurance along with other forms of income security.
But as I continue to think through the question of work within the context of the ongoing crisis and the Left’s almost exclusive focus on job creation and economic growth as a response, I can’t help but be reminded of a particularly powerful passage from Paul Lafargue’s classic 1883 essay The Right To Be Lazy:
Instead of taking advantage of periods of crisis, for a general distribution of their products and a universal holiday, the laborers, perishing with hunger, go and beat their heads against the doors of the workshops. With pale faces, emaciated bodies, pitiful speeches they assail the manufacturers: “Good M. Chagot, sweet M. Schneider, give us work, it is not hunger, but the passion for work which torments us.” And these wretches, who have scarcely the strength to stand upright, sell twelve and fourteen hours of work twice as cheap as when they had bread on the table. And the philanthropists of industry profit by their lockouts to manufacture at lower cost.
While the demand for “a general distribution of their products and a universal holiday” might seem hopelessly utopian in the current political climate, the chances of winning the kind of job creation program that will be demanded at next month’s march might be similarly slim. It’s staggering to think that the Republicans, who were in total disarray after the 2008 election as the party of failed wars and economic collapse, have a very good chance to regain control of both houses of Congress and the presidency in the near future. The GOP is likely to make significant gains in Congressional elections this fall, ensuring that the balance of political forces will continue to shift against the prospects for large-scale government spending on jobs. Moreover, economies impacted by severe financial crises typically take a very long time to recover to pre-crisis levels of employment growth, if they ever do. We could very well be looking towards at least a decade of high unemployment and poor general economic performance, which doesn’t bode well for President Obama’s reelection chances in 2012.
Even when companies begin hiring in significant numbers again, many economists predict that this hiring will provide disproportionate benefits to high-skill workers while most everyone else is forced to take low-skill, low-paying jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, 8 of the 10 projected fastest growing occupations for this decade require an Associate’s Degree or lower, and include jobs like food service workers, orderlies, retail salespersons, and home health aides; suffice to say most of the rest of the top 30 are similarly unpleasant or undesirable. While it’s possible that a significant green manufacturing sector could develop in the US in the coming years, there’s no guarantee that it would create large numbers of decent jobs. Thanks to the introduction of advanced labor saving technologies in manufacturing, the US and other countries produce more steel and automobiles with hundreds of thousands less workers than were needed decades ago, and there’s no reason to think that green manufacturing would not be similarly capital intensive.
Not only does the US economy tend to produce lots of bad jobs, US workers tend to spend far too much of their time doing them. In 2009, the average US worker worked 1,681 hours compared to 1,390 in Germany. Germany’s experiments with kurzarbeit, a government program that provides income support to workers who accept reduced hours, has helped it avoid the problems of high and long-term unemployment that confront us here in the US Instead of fighting for more work, much of which is likely to be bad, how about fighting for less work for everybody? This could be a very effective way to make sure that there are enough jobs to go around for everyone while limiting the amount of time workers spend in deadening, alienating labor.
However, there is very little discussion on the Left of the possibility of reorganizing work and limiting working time as a way of confronting the crisis and in turn providing the foundation for a revitalized labor movement. To anyone familiar with the main currents of Leftist theorizing over the last century, this shouldn’t be very surprising. With a handful of exceptions, we have avoided thinking seriously about these questions for a very long time.
How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Work
The mainstream of Marxist and socialist thinking over roughly the last century has tended to elide considerations of the organization and process of work instead focusing almost exclusively on a critique of the unjust distribution of the economic surplus produced by capitalism, although Marx himself did not fail to take these considerations into account. According to the traditional Marxist framework, the primary contradiction of capitalism is between the increasingly socialized system of production made possible by the development of large-scale industry on one hand, and the private ownership and control of the means of production on the other. As the destructive effects of private control of socialized production increasingly undermine the health and stability of capitalism, the working class would seek not to abolish or significantly alter the process of production but to submit it to rational control. Instead of distributing the economic surplus created by industrial production through the mechanisms of the market and private property, it would be distributed on the basis of need through collective ownership and planning. Ownership of the means of production and control over the mode of distribution would be shifted from the bourgeoisie to the working class, but the mode of production itself would remain basically unchanged. After all, if the workers owned the means of production, wouldn’t that mean that exploitation and alienated labor would, by definition, cease to exist?
In Thesis Eleven of his classic essay Theses on the Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin identified the disastrous implications of this uncritical acceptance of the capitalist mode of production for socialist theory and practice. Under the sway of a vulgar ideology that equated technological and industrial development with historical progress toward socialism, the socialist movement in Germany trapped itself within a capitalist logic it could not escape. “From this, it was only a step to the illusion that the factory-labor set forth by the path of technological progress represented a political achievement. The old Protestant work ethic celebrated its resurrection among German workers in secularized form.” As long as large-scale industry continued to churn out ever greater amounts of stuff, work was not something to be transformed or limited but glorified, and the socialist movement largely stopped asking questions about the degrading effects of proletarian labor on workers. “It wishes to perceive only the progression of the exploitation of nature, not the regression of society,” in Benjamin’s incisive phrase. The “scientific socialists” of the time never lost an opportunity to denigrate the utopian socialists they viewed as a clutch of romantic reactionaries, but Benjamin saw the potential value of their flights of fancy. “Compared to this positivistic conception, the fantasies which provided so much ammunition for the ridicule of Fourier exhibit a surprisingly healthy sensibility,” reminding us of the possibility of a new conception of labor “which, far from exploiting nature, is instead capable of delivering creations whose possibility slumbers in her womb.”
Benjamin wrote his essay in 1940, and most Marxists and socialists failed to respond to his fragmentary but powerful criticism of the organization of work in the years that followed. If anything, the expansion and stabilization of capitalism and the integration of labor and socialist movements into central positions in the postwar political economy only made the problem worse. Until the publication of his landmark book Labor and Monopoly Capital in the mid 1970s, Harry Braverman was practically the only Marxist thinker who paid any attention to the labor process under capitalism and the manner in which it degrades workers across all occupational categories. One could expect bourgeois social scientists to ignore the importance of these questions in order to maintain capitalism’s legitimacy, but the labor movement and intellectuals of the Left fatally erred in doing so as well. Braverman showed how the labor movement seemed to be intimidated or even enthralled by the complexity and productivity of capitalist production, and sought only to bargain with capital over the distribution of its product. Most Marxists accepted this circumscribed framework, limited their inquiries to it, and accepted the inevitability of modern factory production. Social democratic parties sought mainly to compromise with capitalism and sand off its roughest edges, while the Soviet Union and other Communist societies consciously adopted Taylorism and the whole apparatus of capitalist production in order to achieve rapid economic growth.
As Braverman writes, “the critique of the capitalist mode of production, originally the most trenchant weapon of Marxism, gradually lost its cutting edge as the Marxist analysis of class structure of society failed to keep pace with the rapid progress of change . . . Marxism became weakest at the very point where it had originally been strongest.” It had little to say to those who were concerned by social problems that were not distributional in character, and could not adequately deal with the breakdown of the postwar order nor the decline of the political and economic importance of the classical industrial working class.
The political and theoretical implications of the decline of that working class were main lines of inquiry explored by the idiosyncratic French Marxist theorist André Gorz. In his most well-known book, Farewell to the Working Class, Gorz argued that technological advances in production techniques made large swathes of the working class increasingly superfluous, opening the possibilities of abolishing work as it is understood in capitalism and providing everyone with autonomously directed free time. Technologically advanced societies had to make a choice: “eithera socially controlled abolition of work, or its oppressive, anti-social abolition.” The labor and socialist movements in those societies would have to make a similar choice: “either it holds to a productivist ideology in which the development of the productive forces is seen as the essential precondition of freedom. Then there is no possibility of calling for the productive forces developed by capitalism into question . . . Or the movement accepts that the means of production and a considerable part of what is actually produced do not lend themselves to real and concrete collective appropriation by real proletarians. Then the problem will be changing the means and structure of production in such a way as to make them collectively appropriatable.” The master’s tools cannot be used to dismantle the master’s house – and besides, do we really want to socialize Lockheed Martin anyway?
Gorz was incorrect in arguing that capitalism was creating a jobless future. As we’ve seen, the Great American Jobs Machine has created lots of jobs in the past and will likely do so again when it eventually recovers from its current troubles. The problem is that a large proportion of them will suck. But he was entirely correct in arguing that the Left would remain weak and defensive so long as it remained trapped by the ideology of work and sought mainly to protect the rapidly deteriorating gains made by workers during the golden age of industrial capitalism. Instead, we should challenge the organization of work itself and fight to appropriate the free time made possible by the continuing development of science and technology:
“The very same technological developments that make it possible to free time and reduce everyone’s workload also allow the Right, through the weapon of unemployment, to reinforce the old ideology of hard work and productivity just when it no longer has any economic or technical basis. Nowhere is the ling separating Left and Right clearer than on the question of the social management of free time: on the politics of time. According to whether it is a politics (and policy) of the Right or the Left, it may lead either to a society based on unemployment or to one based on free time. Of all the levers available to change the social order and the quality of life, this is one of the most powerful.”
My Experiment in Freedom
The one-sided focus of most Marxists and socialists on distributional questions has obscured the fact that the animating principle of the Left is not so much equality, but rather freedom — freedom from alienating work and freedom to use our time and creativity for our own self-directed ends. Socialism does not equal the roughly equal distribution of stuff; the martyrs of the labor movement didn’t give up their lives so that everyone could have the right to buy an iPhone or a plasma screen TV, or to waste their lives working at crap jobs. Marx himself was rather clear on this point. Near the end of Volume 3 of Capital, he famously argues that the “true realm of freedom” lies beyond the sphere of material production, and that “the shortening of the working day is its prerequisite.” While the necessity for people to do some sort of potentially alienating work to ensure social reproduction will likely never be totally abolished, it should entail “the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature.” So long as the Left does not seek to fundamentally alter the labor process nor shorten the working day to the least amount of time possible, it fails to act on what should be its most fundamental principles.
As an employee of a strapped government agency looking to cut costs wherever possible, I was offered the opportunity earlier this year to reduce my work week for the rest of the fiscal year to twenty-one hours with a concomitant reduction in my annual salary. While I was worried about voluntarily giving up 40 percent of my pay, my mounting dissatisfaction with the technological deskilling that hollowed out much of the appeal of my job provided me with the impetus I needed to trade some financial security for a three day work week. I can say unambiguously that working much less has dramatically improved the quality of my life, especially my psychological well-being. It has given me the ability to pursue graduate study and spend more time with friends and in political activism. It has even made me an objectively better worker from the standpoint of capitalist rationality during the three days that I am at work; I probably do the same amount of work now than I did in five days, and with a much sunnier disposition to boot.
Economists who study the social effects of a shortened work week have found empirical support for my overwhelmingly positive subjective experiences. Earlier this year, the New Economics Foundation in Britain issued a report calling for the normal work week to be reduced from its current level to twenty-one hours. They find that experiments in working less are often popular with both workers and employers, cut down on environmental pollution because of a reduction in commuting, help to reduce unemployment, encourage a balancing of gender relations at home and at work, and improve workers’ physical and psychological well-being. I don’t mean to portray shortening working time as a panacea, and I admit that I have been able to perform my small experiment in freedom because I am a young man with low overhead costs and no familial obligations. The fact that my union continues to protect my position while I work a reduced number of hours certainly doesn’t hurt either. But the potential benefits are clear and could be a central component of a new political program for the Left.
Clearly, the prospects of building a movement around such a program currently appear to be bleak. But so are the prospects of building a movement around a more traditional Left program that continues to operate under the assumptions of mid-twenty-century social democracy. In this time of crisis and uncertainty, all potential options should be considered and pursued.
A demand for less work and more free time could be the thing that activates the formation of a new collective political subject with the capacity to pursue a class politics appropriate for the twenty-first century. It might create the conditions under which “a Left endowed with a future rather than burdened with nostalgia for the past might re-emerge,” as Gorz incisively put it. Besides, we have already earned that general distribution of products and universal holiday that Paul Lafargue talked about over a century ago. It’s time to cash in.