Work, time, and the working class

Submitted by Matthew on 29 June, 2016 - 3:07

Moishe Postone, a Marxist writer based at the University of Chicago and author of Time, Labour, and Social Domination, and Critique du fétiche-capital: Le capitalisme, l’antisémitisme et la gauche, was in London in May, and discussed capital and labour with Martin Thomas from Solidarity.


MT: Your book Time, Labour, and Social Domination proposes a Marxist theory focused on the critique of labour (as labour is defined in capitalist society), and you contrast that to a critique of capitalist society from the point of view of labour. Logically, therefore, you discuss chapter 15 of Capital, where Marx comes to the culmination of his analysis of labour in capitalist society. But there is surprisingly little about chapter 15 in your book, given that it is the chapter about labour as it is defined in industrialised capitalism.

And if you look at other schools of interpretation – the operaisti, for example — who focus on chapter 15, they reach, in a way, exactly the opposite conclusion. You say that capitalism is the self-movement of capital. They say that society is the self-movement of the working class within the capitalist framework. So why is it that the central chapter, which you focus on, is discussed relatively little? And why is it that other writers who have focussed on Marx’s discussion of labour come to the diametrically opposite conclusion?

MP: I think the operaisti and I have very different understandings of what Marx’s categories mean. I don’t think that they are only categories of exploitation. I think that they are categories of social forms of domination. And those forms of domination go beyond the domination of the bourgeoisie over other classes, because they dominate the bourgeoisie as well, though of course the bourgeoisie benefit enormously from them.

Previous ruling classes were not dominated. There was no-one dominating the aristocracy – they could basically do what they wanted until somebody else stopped them. I think that the operaisti, by putting everything in the bag of the labouring classes, essentially dispense with that level of Marxist analysis and therefore, as I read it, they dispense with his idea of the trajectory of capital. The trajectory of capital for them simply is a matter of the success of class struggle, or its lack of success.

So for them the crisis of the seventies, from which we still have not recovered, was a crisis that was brought on by the working class. I disagree with that because I think that they have no notion of valorisation difficulties other than wage struggle. Also, the enormous transformations of labour have occurred, and I think the operaisti hold the working class to be constant.

The chapter on accumulation [ch. 25] in Marx’s Capital volume 1 — which I didn’t write about, though I should have — arguably, is about the growing superfluity of a great deal of labour. A lot of people read the chapter on accumulation with an idea of the industrial reserve army of labour, and see that as simply a cyclical affair that allows capital to keep wages down by having a reserve which varies over the course of the business cycle. That isn’t false, but I think it is only one dimension of a longer term problem.

With the rise of constant capital, variable capital becomes less and less important, so the logical tendency is for the industrial reserve army to grow, rather than being just cyclical, and for that process to produce a crisis of labour. I don’t mean a crisis that causes the whole edifice to come crashing down. I think we are experiencing a crisis of labour right now. We are getting the hollowing out of working society.

Someone like Sanders in the United States is making a serious error when he argues that the misère of the working class in the United States is because of faulty trade agreements. The trade agreements have certainly contributed. They have contributed in ways that people focussing on the American workers alone do not see. They have wreaked havoc in other parts of the world such as Mexican farmers, once cheap American maize was allowed into that country. But Sanders completely underestimates the effects of mechanisation. At least he is trying to give a socio-economic explanation for the difficulties, whereas Trump is giving simply a xenophobic and racist one. Both of them they are trying to deal with a crisis of labour, and thus acquiring many votes in traditional heartland working-class areas.

I have recently been working in Vienna. There is a chance that the Austrians are going to elect a neo-nazi as President, this man Hofer [in the event Hofer was narrowly defeated]. So I asked someone about what happened to Red Vienna, and they said that the inner districts of the city are Red-Green — the Social-Democrats, the Reds, have been weaker for a while.

The older arrondissements, what they call the Bezirks, are Red-Blue, and Blue is the colour of the neo-Nazis. And there is a crisis, I think, of the industrial working class.

MT: But this isn’t a secular long-term increase in unemployment, for example. The long-term average level of unemployment rose over the 1970s, but since then unemployment has gone up and down with no clear rising trend. In the USA, for example, unemployment is actually lower now than in the 1970s.

MP: That is because the Americans don’t count anyone who has been unemployed for more than 18 months, and they don’t count the enormous prison population.

MT: In the UK, too, though. And the level of workforce participation is higher than it was. I don’t see a secular long-time rise in unemployment, or decline in workforce participation, but I do see a long-term trend of displacements of labour, in a way that, I think, obliges us to look again at how Marx has conceived of modern industry and the changes that have happened since.

You have a lot of people in jobs which are very poor quality jobs: not even making things, but watching things, or cleaning things, or looking after things. They are paid a lot lower. The work itself may be less physically exhausting, but it pushes you down in society in a way that the more arduous work that it replaced maybe didn’t.

Marx did not foresee this transformation. He saw machine-minders as the growing sector of the working class. But people in these expanding job areas are not machine-minders. They are cleaners, security guards, low-paid service workers. This is a shift, but it’s not just a shift towards more and more people becoming unemployed. Also, Marx was explicit that there is a component of the working class involved in design, repair, people who are technicians within the production process. At the time he is writing, it was numerically insignificant. It is not numerically insignificant now.

So we see three processes going on. The classic process of de-skilling, which goes on all the time, across the board. The process of the displacement of labour into jobs which are about not operating machines, but minding the conditions of the production process. And a continuously-rising mass of jobs which are to do with designing and maintaining the production process, which are generally more-skilled jobs and there is a process of trying to de-skill them.

The mass of teachers in schools and universities has increased enormously, for example. And at the same time there is a continuous process of trying to standardise, homogenise, de-skill. If there is a crisis there, there are three distinct processes going on; and none is quite a question of labour becoming superfluous. Certainly in Europe, the general trend is a rise in the participation rate.

MP: Things are being cut back and automated. Even in universities.

I have no idea what the figures are like here, and probably they are not nearly as bad. Something like 60% or 70% of all teaching at the university level in the USA is done by what we call adjuncts. At the same time, there is a very strong push towards MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses]. Not very successful so far, but give it time. This was first developed, to the best of my knowledge, in Canada. You are asked to develop a course to be put online. That course then belongs to the university, which has a patent on it. They can hire anyone they like to teach that course. Adjuncts are hired. The academic who develops the course isn’t fired, but they’re not going to hire anyone else like her or him. The tendency will be to roll back the number of people who teach at the university level, and put stuff online.

Young bankers and young lawyers in the United States spend such an inordinate amount of time working – so much so, that I think it was Goldman Sachs, one of these giant firms, told their employees that they were not allowed to be in the office between Friday night and Sunday morning. And those who interviewed some of these young people and asked them why they are working so hard, they got the answer: none of them are coming up with brilliant ideas, which is what they are supposed to do, so the only way you prove your worth to the law firm or the bank is by working longer and harder than anybody else.

I am told that a lot of these jobs are going to be computerised in the coming years. In the so-called second industrial revolution, where there was a massive displacement of people from some spheres accompanied by a massive pulling-in of huge numbers of people into other spheres, but that won’t happen now. You may still get an expansion of janitorial staff, but those jobs are becoming fairly mechanised too.

I don’t think we are moving automatically in any sense towards a labour-less society, but the idea that the working class was going to globally expand, and that there would be basically two classes, a small elite and a huge working class — that model no longer fits the world. It could be argued on the basis of Volume 3 of Capital that Marx envisioned the expansion of what we would call the white-collar middle class.

MT: There is a passage in [Marx’s] Theories of Surplus Value on the expansion of the middle class. But part of the picture is that much of what used to be thought of as the white-collar middle class is now working-class. And it is a fact that the industrial working class, and the working class more broadly defined, has been growing.

Look at China, for example... Industrial expansion in China stopped in about 2005. But OK, industry will expand in Bangladesh. So it’s a rolling process... And it’s got a good few places to roll on to. Absolutely. So I don’t think this is linear, and I am not predicting the imminent end of labouring society.

First there will be proletarianisation of large parts of the world. Quite a while ago I was struck by a sentence in Mandel’s Late Capitalism, where he wrote that after 1945, far more capital was invested by metropolitan countries in other metropolitan countries than in the previously-colonised world: he wrote that “the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited”.

Having discussed the question of the critique of labour versus the critique of capitalist society from the point of view of labour, you identify this question with the question of the revolutionary role of the working class. The way you make the argument is to say that emancipation cannot be conceived of as the self-realisation of labour. But the way I take Marx’s argument is that he is nowhere talking about the self-realisation of labour, but the self-abolition of labour.

In the 1844 Manuscripts, he is talking about the critique of crude communism, and the worst he has to say about it is “The category of the worker is not done away with, but extended to all men... The community is only a community of labour, and equality of wages paid out by communal capital – by the community as the universal capitalist”.

One of the sides of the Stalinist corruption of Marxism was to turn it into a glorification of the sort of labour done under capitalism – the more Stakhanovite you are, the more emancipated you are.

Marx’s argument is that the structural position of the working class tends to give the working class a drive towards self-abolition as a class. It’s not that the working class is driven to realise and exalt its activity in labour, but it is driven to revolt against it. In Wage-Labour and Capital, Marx writes that for the worker, life starts outside work. And the worker has a life outside work in a way that previous exploited classes don’t have. Marx talks about this as “the civilising tendency of capital”.

In chapter 15, Marx says that large-scale capitalist industry has a compulsion to create a working class which is multi-skilled, which is capable of all sorts of jobs, activities, productive functions – and then, to put it into boxes. It has a drive to create people who are adaptable, flexible, multi-skilled and so on, and then have them doing stereotyped things which can be replaced by a machine. And those tendencies which will create a drive to abolish this condition — to replace it by the sharing-out of necessary drudgery on the basis of short hours and good conditions, and a great expansion of free time for free creative activity — rather than to bring it to a culmination.

MP: I think that is what Marx was saying; but I think that most of Marxism has not said that. Not only the Stalinists: I think the social democracy, very understandably, talked about the “dignity of labour” and therefore of the dignity of the activity undertaken by labour.

Marx didn’t accord it much dignity. He saw the development as being much more double-sided: that there was simultaneously a process whereby work is robbed of its intrinsic meaning. And at the same time, workers become historically constituted, as people who have a life outside of labour, and as people who think of themselves as agents. Which is very different than, to the best of my knowledge, than the self-conceptions of other kinds of subaltern populations. But what does self-abolition mean? I use that term, and I am for it. But it means going beyond labour, and that’s very difficult. That’s one of the reasons why Marx thought there had to be a political movement and not simply a trade union movement.

The limitation of a trade union movement is not simply it’s going to sell out but that it’s not going to look beyond labour – its job is to defend labour. So how do you go beyond labour, what kind of movement looks beyond labour? Particularly at a time when a lot of workers feel threatened. I am not sure where such a movement should start. What sort of programmes would one suggest to show that there are other possibilities, rather than clinging on, because now, if you don’t cling on, you just become flotsam? So it’s very understandable that people are holding on. But I agree with what you say about what Marx said in the early manuscripts, and I think that this remained throughout.

A lot of people think that maybe those ideas were in the early manuscripts but later on disappeared.

MT: Your argument is that any conception of the revolutionary role of the working class must be about its self-realisation, and that doesn’t follow at all. The structure of capital, the movement of capital, generates, along with a lot of counter-tendencies, a drive in the working class towards self-abolition, to abolish the proletarian condition. That doesn’t mean that immediately everybody’s going to stop work. The way that Marx frequently sums it up in is simply: the limiting of the working day.

The limiting of the working day is not just to give you time to go home and put your feet up; it is to give you more time for free activity. And the idea is that progressively that free activity becomes a much greater productive force than the work itself. You can see why that idea is just pushed aside by Stalinism.

As for classic social democracy — the typical cadre of classic social democracy was a skilled worker. He or she (mostly he) was a different grade of worker from the machine-minders Marx described in chapter 15 of Capital — a skilled worker who took pride in his or her work for actually not very different reasons why medieval craftsmen took pride in their work. That didn’t mean that they couldn’t see beyond that, but it was something very close to them, and part of their class feeling against capitalism was: “we know how to do these things and they mess it up, we can do the job properly”.

That was a real reason, not a theoretical misunderstanding; but that category of skilled workers is declining.

MP: I agree. Implicit in what I wrote, is that what I regard as traditional Marxism is adequate to its time. And what I am trying to do is to write something that is adequate to a different epoch. It is not simply that I am smarter than Karl Kautsky. This isn’t that kind of argument. It’s a matter of a historical shift. I think that limiting the working day is crucial, but that seems to have disappeared from the horizons of almost anybody apart from the French working class.

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