BY ANDREW POLLACK
Sept. 17 marked one year of the Occupy movement, initiated by and drawing the bulk of its activists from what they themselves describe as a “precariat.” That is, a part of the workforce without jobs or in unstable, low-paid jobs with few or no benefits or protection. In this the Occupiers were in good company with the millions of youth facing catastrophic levels of joblessness throughout the Middle East and in Europe who were at the heart of rebellions against tyrants and the exploitative system they served.
Traditionally, one demand raised by the labor movement worldwide to address unemployment has been a shorter workweek and/or workday. The demand for shorter hours (with no loss in pay) was at the heart of the May 1886 mass rallies that Occupy put such effort into commemorating this year.
In late August several items in The New York Times reminded us of the technical possibility of a dramatically shorter workweek. The first was a review of a new book by Robert and Edward Skidelsky,
“How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life.” They begin by quoting John Maynard Keynes’s 1928 prediction that by 2030 a 15-hour workweek would be the norm—and that already by 2010 it would be down to 20 hours.
Keynes’s predictions about productivity increases that would make such shorter hours possible have been more than met. Yet after falling at a slow but constant rate from the middle of the 19th century until World War II, since then the U.S. workweek has hovered around 40 hours.
For Marxists the reasons for this are clear: the power wielded by the ruling class and its government to beat back any attempts by labor to win shorter hours; the collaboration of the union bureaucracy with those forces; and the ideological mystification propagated by advertisers and the media to convince us we should work harder and longer to buy more.
The Skidelskys discount the first two causes and focus instead on why the third is so successful. As a result the bulk of their book is a philosophical quest to get to the root of consumers’ supposed “insatiability.”
The second Times article was entitled “Skilled Work, Without the Worker.” The author contrasts a Philips Electronics factory on the coast of China in which “hundreds of workers use their hands and specialized tools to assemble electric shavers” with a factory owned by the same company in the Netherlands in which “128 robot arms do the same work with yoga-like flexibility. … And they do it all without a coffee break—three shifts a day, 365 days a year. “All told, the factory here has several dozen workers per shift,” about a tenth as many as the Chinese plant.
This, says The Times, is part of a broader trend in which a new wave of robots “are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution. Factories like the one here in the Netherlands are a striking counterpoint to those used by Apple and other consumer electronics giants, which employ hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers.
“Even as Foxconn, Apple’s iPhone manufacturer, continues to build new plants and hire thousands of additional workers to make smartphones, it plans to install more than a million robots within a few years to supplement its work force in China.”
Foxconn, you may remember, is the company whose slave-driving bosses and prison-like housing for employees have driven many of its workers to suicide. Not surprisingly, the same criminal disregard for humanity was on display when Foxconn’s boss, Terry Gou, told The Times he was relieved to be able to switch to robots: “Speaking of his more than one million employees worldwide, he said in January: ‘As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.’”
“The falling costs and growing sophistication of robots,” says The Times, “have touched off a renewed debate among economists and technologists over how quickly jobs will be lost.” MIT economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee told the paper they foresee changes “on the scale of the revolution in agricultural technology over the last century, when farming employment in the U.S. fell from 40% of the workforce to about 2% today.
“Such advances in manufacturing are also beginning to transform other sectors that employ millions of workers around the world. One is distribution, where robots that zoom at the speed of the world’s fastest sprinters can store, retrieve, and pack goods for shipment far more efficiently than people. Robots could soon replace workers at companies like C & S Wholesale Grocers, the nation’s largest grocery distributor. … “Symbotic’s chief executive compares the new system to a huge parallel computer. The design is efficient because there is no single choke point; the cases of food moving through the robotic warehouse are like the digital bits being processed by the computer.”
The New York Times noted that this type of automation, which has gone beyond making things into controlling how they are distributed, “will put automation within range of companies like Federal Express and United Parcel Service that now employ tens of thousands of workers doing such tasks.”
It is not just workers who experience the impact of automation under capitalism. Ironically, the bosses themselves find their profits declining in the long run because of the anarchic nature of their system. First, because laid-off workers consume less. Second, because automation decreases the rate of profit by increasing what Marxists call the organic composition of capital. That is, because surplus value can only come from the labor component of value that goes into each commodity, the rate of profit to be made on each commodity decreases when work is automated. And at a certain point the profits available to capital as a whole make it unprofitable to keep production going, leading to more layoffs, meaning fewer consumers buying goods, leading to the need for further automation to regain absolute (if not relative) profits, and on and on.
But the nature of capitalist economic anarchy is such that the bosses can’t avoid those unintended consequences; they have no way to stop themselves from dragging each other down, from quickening the very competition which threatens their profits in the first place. And the faster and faster race ends each time with a collective smash-up as all cars hit the wall.
Labor’s approach to worktime
Historically, the labor movement when at its best has tried to protect itself against job loss from automation by demanding that the fruits of heightened productivity go into shortening the workweek, and thus spreading the work, without loss in pay. That was labor’s demand on May 1, 1886, when hundreds of thousands joined rallies across the United States; that was the demand of radicals in the most militant days of the Congress of Industrial Organizations—and it needs to be our demand today.
But in between such periods, i.e., when labor is dominated instead by conservative bureaucrats, such demands have fallen by the wayside and the fruits of automation have gone into the bosses’ pockets and, in periods of systemic crisis, into increasingly unprofitable and unproductive investments (think subprime mortgages).
Meanwhile, the average workweek stagnates, with some workers laboring at levels above that average in a desperate attempt to make ends meet by working massive overtime or a second job, and others relegated to laboring below that average as part of a reserve army of labor made up of the chronically unemployed and those in casual, part-time, and/or temporary (precarious) jobs.
And all this is overlaid with the discriminatory push and pull into and out of the job market of specially-oppressed segments of the labor force—that is, Blacks, Latin@s, women, etc. Thus, for instance, the mid-20th-century automation of agriculture involved the driving off the land of hundreds of thousands of Southern Black workers, the majority of whom ended up in Northern ghettoes serving as a new reserve army of labor, i.e., a segment of the workforce kept unemployed and thus ready for use by the bosses under the most exploitative conditions if, when, and how those bosses needed.
t the moment labor can hardly be said to be “at its best,” and is doing little to address this problem. In February 2004, Bill Onasch wrote in his Kansas City Labor “Week in Review” blog a response to a statement by the AFL-CIO on defending overtime. While agreeing with their opposition to President Bush’s plan to weaken premium pay for overtime, Onasch noted: “It is undoubtedly true that ‘middle class’ life style can generally only be maintained by families with two or more breadwinners working substantial amounts of overtime. But is this the American Dream we should be mobilizing to defend?
“The labor movement that we know today was largely built initially around the fight for an eight-hour day, 40-hour week—once considered an almost revolutionary demand. Finally, after decades of battle, sometimes bloody, that standard was codified into national law, covering most workers. …
“But after 1938 the movement for shorter hours virtually disappeared from the agenda of the American mainstream union movement. Despite these incredible increases in productivity, especially since World War II, workers were encouraged by bosses, and often union bureaucrats, to work more hours—golden time-and-a-half, sometimes double-time hours. That’s the way to put your kids through college, to buy that third car, or the bass boat, or whatever suits your fancy.”
Onasch contrasted this approach to that of the Labor Party founded by Tony Mazzocchi in 1996. The party’s program explained: “Compared to the late 1960s, we are now working an average of more than one extra month annually. We work longer hours and have less vacation time than almost all workers in the industrialized world. While many of us cannot find work, factory overtime is now at record levels because it is more profitable to pay overtime than it is to hire new workers.”
In response to this state of affairs, the Labor Party called for “amending the federal labor laws to: Define the normal work week to 32 hours without loss of pay or benefits. Provide a minimum of double-time pay for all hours worked over 32 hours a week and 8 hours a day. Forbid compulsory overtime. Mandate one hour off with pay for every two hours of overtime. Require twenty days paid vacation for all workers in addition to the federal holidays. Provide one year of paid educational leave for every seven years worked.
“Taken together these proposals will create millions of new jobs and allow us free time we need to care for our families and to participate in our communities. More family time and more community participation should be the fruit of increased labor productivity.”
The overworked American
Those last points about the connection between shorter hours and family time and community participation are examined in detail in Juliet Schor’s landmark 1991 work, “The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure.” Schor, whose academic posts have been in both economics and women’s studies, addresses the impact of overwork in both the spheres of production and reproduction (i.e., making things and making people respectively) and their mutual interaction.
Schor wrote: “In the last twenty years the amount of time Americans have spent at their jobs has risen steadily. … When surveyed, Americans report that they have only sixteen and a half hours of leisure a week, after the obligations of job and household are taken care of. Working hours are already longer than they were forty years ago…
“For nearly a hundred years, hours had been declining. When this decline abruptly ended in the late 1940s, it marked the beginning of a new era in worktime. But the change was barely noticed. Equally surprising, but also hardly recognized, has been the deviation from Western Europe. After progressing in tandem for nearly a century, the United States veered off into a trajectory of declining leisure, while in Europe work has been disappearing. … U.S. manufacturing employees currently work 320 more hours—the equivalent of over two months—than their counterparts in West Germany or France.”
The same difference, we would add, can be seen in health care, where the U.S. stands alone without a real national system. And in both cases the single biggest explanatory factor is the absence of mass labor or socialist parties in the U.S. through which workers could push these demands. Unfortunately, the Labor Party quoted above never achieved mass proportions.
But Schor produces figures confirming the realism of the Labor Party’s shorter worktime plank: “The decline in Americans’ leisure time is in sharp contrast to the potential provided by the growth of productivity. … Since 1948, the level of productivity of the U.S. worker has more than doubled. In other words, we could now produce our 1948 standard of living … in less than half the time it took in that year.
We actually could have chosen the four-hour day. Or a working year of six months. Or, every worker in the United States could now be taking every other year off from work-with pay.”
But crucially, Schor doesn’t leave her analysis inside the workplace: “Overwork also has noticeably damaging results off the job: Nationwide, people report their leisure time has declined by as much as one third since the early 1970s. Predictably, they are spending less time on the basics, like sleeping and eating. Parents are devoting less attention to their children. Stress is on the rise, partly owing to the ‘balancing act’ of reconciling the demands of work and family life. …
“Half the population now says they have too little time for their families. The problem is particularly acute for women: in one study, half of all employed mothers reported it caused either ‘a lot’ or an ‘extreme’ level of stress. The same proportion feel that ‘when I’m at home I try to make up to my family for being away at work, and as a result I rarely have any time for myself.’ …
“The most alarming development may be the effect of the work explosion on the care of children. According to economist Sylvia Hewlett, child neglect has become endemic to our society. A major problem is that children are increasingly left alone, to fend for themselves while their parents are at work.
“Even when parents are at home, overwork may leave them with limited time, attention, or energy for their children. … Hewlett links the ‘parenting deficit’ to a variety of problems plaguing the country’s youth: poor performance in school, mental problems, drug and alcohol use, and teen suicide. According to another expert, kids are being ‘cheated out of childhood. …There is a sense that adults don’t care about them.’”
We would single out for special note from the category “mental problems” the epidemic-level rates of what is alleged to be ADHD—a “clinical” label making it easier for Big Pharma to make billions in profits from drugs, while society ignores the stresses and strains underlying children’s behavior.
Just as Schor goes beyond the sphere of production into that of reproduction, she also steps outside the walls of the typical home to examine the impact of overwork on the environment. In her 2011 interview Schor says: “Since the 1970s the United States has used all of its productivity growth to work more, and to produce more. That means that our ecological impact is expanding and we are putting more pressure on the environment than it can handle. We are seeing the impact on climate, biodiversity, the nitrogen cycle, water scarcity, etc. So if we think about it in the global context where half the world’s population does not have access to ecological resources and we will likely have 2 billion more people on the planet, it is clear that the wealthy who are overconsumers of ecological resources need to reduce the pressure they are putting on those resources. For that segment of the population a shift from work time to leisure is key.”
Schor writes: “If worktime decreases, people will be able to spend time doing a variety of things with their leisure time that were formerly commoditized in the market economy. The archetypal examples are growing vegetables, or the care of children, the elderly, the sick and the disabled. We are already seeing huge amounts of activity going on outside the market with nonprofessionals being the source of entertainment through home-produced videos, music, writing, software coding, wikis and blogs. People are able to do them because they have time outside their paying jobs, it is called peer production and there is an enormous amount of activity going on in that space. People are producing things for the love of doing it and for the enjoyment of their friends and colleagues.”
But how do we get to a society where such activities are part of everyday life and not crammed into scarce off-work hours, where what and how we produce is determined by our needs as creative people, by what is nourishing and stimulating for us and our planet, and not just more crap to replace when broken or “outdated”?
In addition to fighting for shorter hours, we need to fight for higher incomes for all and guaranteed jobs through public works. One important step down the road is the fight for what Schor calls “social goods,” i.e., needed consumption items available as a matter of right and not depending on your work situation. In a similar vein the Skidelskys call for a basic income divorced from work to minimize the impact of consumerism. But for them, it’s an add-on to ameliorate the worst cultural manifestations of the profit-seeking system.
For Marxists, a guarantee that society as a whole will enjoy the fruits of our labor is at the core of our program—as is the notion that distribution of such goods will be decided democratically, and in a way that integrates the needs and concerns of workers as workers, as reproductive beings, as inhabitants of an increasingly endangered natural world.
At the start of this article we pointed to chronic levels of high unemployment as a key issue behind revolts from Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street. The Occupy movement, however, has not yet put forward any proposals around worktime or jobs (not even on the May Day anniversary). At the moment the campaign getting most attention in OWS circles is its “Strike Debt” effort, an attempt to organize mass repudiation of individual debt. And for its one-year anniversary action on Sept. 17, OWS is planning another mass action targeting Wall Street—but again, with no specific demands around jobs, hours, income, or services.
In discussions leading up to the joint OWS/union/community group May Day actions this year, when some activists raised the need for jobs and public works, a common response from anarchists was “we don’t want to work—work sucks!” These same activists argued for creating a society without alienation and without exploitation—but with no suggestion of how to get there, of how to make work shorter, less alienating, of how to re-integrate work into a rational life for a new humanity.
Certainly, Marxists share these anarchists’ resentment of our alienation from our productive capacities, from our loved ones, from nature. Such a radical stance is hardly news: Marx already in the “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844” was writing of the need of humanity, as individuals and as a species, to overcome estrangement from itself, from what it does and makes, and from nature. And Marx had already pinpointed the origin of that estrangement in workers’ separation from their means of production and reproduction, and their resulting dependence for survival on the ability to work for others, specifically for the ruling class.
This hatred of alienation shared by socialist and anarchists is also visible in our common literary heritage, for instance the portraits of society’s potential so wonderfully painted in the fiction of William Morris, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Marge Piercy and others. And the withering scorn of Paul Lafargue’s 1880 “The Right to be Lazy” shows that Marxists will take a back seat to no one in our disdain for bourgeois society’s work ethic—and in our ability to chuckle along with Lafargue at the follies of working people when we mindlessly pay homage to that ideology.
What distinguishes Marxists is that we have a program, a strategy, a set of tactics for trying to turn such utopian visions into reality. Marxists support the fight against debt, but also recognize that debt is a symptom, not a cause, of exploitation. We start instead from the root of capital’s profits—production and reproduction—and propose a program to workers that will allow them to build on current struggles for fewer hours, more jobs, better pay, and benefits to the point where they can see the connection with the fight for a radically transformed society. Such struggles are, in fact, at the core of the activities of the OWS Labor Alliance and its components.
We will be participating in the one-year anniversary demonstrations of Occupy Wall Street against the bankers and corporate moguls who keep us enslaved on and off the jobs. And on that day and going forward, we will deepen the discussion of how to spread the worldwide uprising fighting for a society in which the duration, character, and fruits of labor are determined by those doing the work, not by the anarchic laws of the existing system or by those who profit from it without working themselves.
Illustration: A romanticized Harpers magazine depiction of the May 4, 1886, Haymarket massacre in Chicago. The event took pace following massive May 1 rallies across the United States for the eight-hour-day.