The politics of work

Robert Pollin

Stanley Aronowitz
Jason Wright
Platypus Review


On September 20 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a panel discussion entitled The Politics of Work for the Rethinking Marxism conference at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The discussion was moderated by Reid Kotlas of Platypus. The panelists were asked to respond to a prompt of ten questions that included provocative quotations by Joan Robinson, Fredric Jameson, and André Gorz. This prompt asked each panelist to consider the adequacy of the Left’s historic and ongoing attempts to understand and transform social relations of work and unemployment.


What follows is the edited version of the ensuing conversation. A full recording of the event is available online.


Above: A still from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis.


Capital is not a book about politics, and not even a book about labour: it is a book about unemployment.” — Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One

“The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.” — Joan Robinson

“The error consists in believing that labor, by which I mean heteronomous, salaried labor, can and must remain the essential matter. It’s just not so. According to American projections, within twenty years labor time will be less than half that of leisure time. I see the task of the left as directing and promoting this process of abolition of labor in a way that will not result in a mass of unemployed on one side, and aristocracy of labor on the other and between them a proletariat which carries out the most distasteful jobs for forty-five hours a week. Instead, let everyone work much less for his salary and thus be free to act in a much more autonomous manner.…Today “communism” is a real possibility and even a realistic proposition, for the abolition of salaried labor through automation saps both capitalist logic and the market economy.” — André Gorz


Robert Pollin: Since we are a Marxist conference I’m going to start with Karl Marx. I love the quote from Jameson, which I had never seen before: “Capital is not a book about politics, and not even a book about labor: it is a book about unemployment.” I think there is a profound truth to that. Not only is chapter 25 of volume 1 about the reserve army of labor and, as far as I know, the first serious analysis of unemployment as a phenomenon, of the necessity for massive unemployment to exist in order for capitalism to function; but also, the arguments Marx makes in chapter 25 are not the only place in which he is talking about unemployment, which is why I love the Jameson quote. That chapter links up with the entire theory of the labor theory of value and extraction of surplus from labor because, in a full employment economy (in the absence of mass unemployment) the working class has more political power, which of course is what Marx explains. When the working class has more political power and has the capacity to bargain up their wages, that means their rate of surplus value declines. You could think of that as offering a fundamental challenge to the prerogatives of capital and its ability to extract surplus from workers. So Marx was the first great theorist of unemployment. Whether the whole book is about unemployment, as Jameson says, is a debate, but Jameson is certainly making a deep point, maybe the deepest insight in the whole of Capital.


If we take the great theorists of unemployment, we go from Marx, certainly, to Keynes. Keynes’ view on unemployment was, very briefly, that this is a solvable problem within capitalism and we need to understand the technical means to control aggregate demand and instability in the investment process due to the power of Wall Street and speculation. Once we can control those, we can tame worst excesses of capital, we can increase public investment and as such, we can organize capitalism around the idea of full employment. So that is obviously a direct challenge to Marx’s notion that unemployment is fundamental to the operations of capitalism.


From there, we go to, in my view, the best six pages ever written in political economy, and that is the essay by the Polish socialist Michał Kalecki called The Political Aspects of Full Employment. I take Kalecki’s argument to be a very creative synthesis of Marx and Keynes, in that Kalecki is arguing that yes, Keynes is right, we can do all those things; we can get to full employment. Keynes is brilliant: he figured out that the problem of aggregate demand makes capitalism collapse. But then Kalecki says that Marx is also right and capitalism needs mass unemployment. If we do not have mass unemployment, then workers get too much power, and if workers get too much power…Kalecki actually does not focus on the argument of the extraction of surplus-value so much as on the issue of the capitalists losing their prerogatives, that capitalists will lose control over capitalism, workers will get too self-confident — bad for capital. Kalecki is saying that there is a solution to this within capitalism and it is before our eyes — remember that Kalecki’s paper comes out in 1944 — and it is fascism. He says that fascism solves that problem because you can have full employment and you can also prevent workers from getting too much power.


The insights of these great analysts can be translated into political practice. In the history of the Left, I think the most creative way of addressing these issues over the last 50 or 60 years is the Nordic model of social democracy based on the work of Rudolf Meidner and Gösta Rehn — or as my old professor Robert Heilbroner called it, “not Sweden, but slightly imaginary Sweden”: not exactly what Sweden was but the idea of a full employment macroeconomic policy led by the working class. That is, you have to have strong unions as they had in Sweden and the unions were the ones that were establishing the terms of full employment. What could possibly make full employment under this version of capitalism sustainable was that, yes, the unions would accept some degree of wage constraint in exchange for having control over macroeconomic policy. Another way of saying it is that unions would take responsibility for this inflation/unemployment trade-off in exchange, again, for maintaining full employment. So the unions would set the terms of the debate. Of course, this depends on having strong unions. This kind of framework was very much on my mind when I undertook a project in sub-Saharan Africa with the United Nations on decent employment creation and poverty reduction, focusing on South Africa, Kenya, and Ghana. Even though, obviously, Kenya is not that much like Sweden or the United States, the basic concepts of empowering the working class to take control of macroeconomic policy (which in my mind, is an answer to the question thrown down by Kalecki) is, I think, a very energizing and empowering concept.


By contrast, I want to raise something that I think is much more problematic than many of us on the Left realize, namely, the idea of workplace democracy and co-ops. I am not against workplace democracy and co-ops of course, but I don’t think many of us on the Left have thought through the challenges and difficulties they raise. Maybe the most fundamental critique was offered by my University of Massachusetts colleague, Nancy Folbre, who referred to the problem of the “dictatorship of the sociable”: it is great to have workplace democracy, except that who is really going to be running the democratic show is who is going to show up at all of the meetings. Another way that she put it was that it was a vision of life as one long student council meeting. So I think that we need to take these things seriously, and what really drilled that home for me was my work in South Africa. I was presenting a case for full employment, post-apartheid South Africa, which included strong support for worker co-ops and workplace democracy, and some activists who had been members of co-ops were in the audience. One of them got up and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me! Do you realize what a disaster the workplace democracy/co-op movement was and how much it set us back here?” He listed the reasons that Nancy raised.


So I think we need to take that historical example more seriously. To make my last point, on a promising attempt to address these problems today, here is the Associated Press this morning: “In largest protests yet, fast food workers seeking higher wages walk-off jobs across the U.S.” So, we have a very powerful, positive movement going on right now where fast food workers are going on strike demanding a $15 per hour wage.


Stanley Aronowitz: The demand for full employment and jobs always presupposes the constancy of the prevailing system economic and political power. Under our system, if you are out of work, Joan Robinson is totally right to observe that, “the only thing worse than being exploited for your labor is not being exploited for your labor.” We have unemployment benefits which are usually constrained by time limits and we have no real guaranteed income program; the last real one we had was in 1969 when Daniel Patrick Moynihan, President Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, proposed $1600 a year and the movement of poor people at that time rejected it as not being enough. This was $1600 a year per person, not per household. That was the last time we even heard the conversation except for a small group called BIG, Basic Income Guarantee, and I’m part of that but not very active. But that is not the same as being for full employment as a real perspective over the long run. I am not a socialist; I have to say that because it’s important. I am not a social democrat. I think Social Democracy is over — I think there are some reforms possible, but not a social-democratic Sweden. The general strike in Sweden in 1931 — that’s why you had the welfare state. Today, if we had the general strike in the United States, as opposed to Greece, we might have a real situation where we would have to consider what to do next.


The abolition of wage labor was Marx’s basic demand. He thought this was one of two things that had to be addressed in an immediate sense otherwise you could not have a revolutionary communist movement. The problem at this point is that under capitalism wage labor sucks and anybody who has ever done real wage labor knows this. I spent 10 years in a steel mill. I made more money in ten years than most people who are in the working class. But the conditions of the work itself were such that I was dependent on an economic situation over which I had no control: An economic situation which was controlled by both the employer and the market forces. I was laid off repeatedly over about nine years. The job as a concept is really a form of terrible subordination and the only reason people want jobs is because otherwise they starve. So when you talk about the abolition of wage labor, it becomes, in some sense, if you want to use the word, a “utopian” demand that begins to define what the struggle is about: not necessarily that we are going to abolish wage labor tomorrow but we understand the abolition of capitalism should entail the abolition of wage labor.


The second demand that should inform social and class struggle is the demand for shorter hours, because we know all work is shit under capitalism. I’m a professor. I have a relatively good teaching load. I have a lot of students, which is a problem. You might think this is a mere annoyance, but I don’t believe in grades; as a professor, I have to turn in grades. I have responsibilities in terms of administering an institution that I think is absolutely corrupt, which is the City University of New York. It is a small institution, it only has about 400,000 students, 16,000 members of the faculty, but everybody is in the seats because they want jobs. Opportunity to get learning done is very minimal. What I’m saying is that even those of us who get paid well and have a relatively sane teaching load are responsible to a bureaucratic system that constrains our own creativity.


Wage labor is the death of creativity, so you want to fight it as much as you can and one way of fighting it is through shorter hours. Now you want shorter hours for other reasons. One of the reasons you want shorter hours is so you can spread the lousy work that exists under the present circumstances. But if you don’t fight for shorter hours — and you haven’t had that fight since 1938 — then what you are inviting is over-work and more and more contingency. If Walmart employs workers for 28 hours instead of 30 hours to avoid paying health benefits then 28 hours should be considered full-time pay.


But what happens when you have a strong labor movement? The strong labor movement that we had in the late 1930s, through the middle part of the 1940s, and in the 1960s it got a little bit stronger again: the strong labor movement stimulates technological change. The stimulation of technological change reduces jobs! Technology is not about Nintendo. Technology is about the elimination of living labor. The old man taught us and it is in the Grundrisse between pages 690 and 720. If you haven’t read the Grundrisse between 690 and 720, you do not understand much about technology.


The point is the organization of labor by capital and by the state has made labor increasingly unstable and increasingly contingent so the good jobs have disappeared. Finally, if good jobs have disappeared — if there is no future employment possibility — we have two choices. One choice is to create jobs through the state. I’d be happy to have that if you want to do that, and while I don’t think you’re going to get very far, I think it would be good and important. (But not in infrastructure, nobody works in the roads anymore: It’s all done by machine). The other major demand has to be guaranteed income, it has to be paying people because there aren’t enough jobs. Full employment? Maybe, but working towards the abolition of wage labor is the key. One way of doing it is shorter hours; a second way of doing it is guaranteed income. That’s something that is still on the horizon because both the Left and the labor movement have by and large given it up.


Jason Wright: It should go without saying at a conference of this nature that the question of class politics and the role of the working class is not a fetishization of the working class, but a recognition that the working class is the only class in a position to bring about true human liberation and that this is based on the relationship the working class has to the means of production. For Marxism, of course, human history is a history of class struggle. The central opposition in capitalism, as the form of class society we have arrived at today, is between the bourgeoisie, which owns the means of the production and the working class, which actually creates all the profits that the capitalists reap.


I know this is a strange perspective for people today in the U.S. where the myth has existed for so long that everyone is middle class. One thing Occupy Wall Street brought back into public consciousness was the idea that there is a very small percentage of the population that actually has tremendous amount of control in society based on their ownership of the means of production. One of the reasons why a populist movement like Occupy could come to that conclusion today is because of the corruption and bribery and the naked contempt for the vast majority of the population that is on display in a way that it hasn’t been since the Gilded Age.


The questions are all still the same as those posed by the Marxist movement 100 years ago, but for a long time there were various ways in which these questions were sublimated in the mainstream discourse in the U.S. and I think there is a reason for that. Compared to many other countries, the United States has seen a relative lack of class consciousness: a lack of the working class seeing its historic role and its relationship to the means of production. A lot of writers have offered various explanations for that and here we can touch on some of the primary ones: the legacy of slavery and of racism in this country and the ability of employers to exploit divisions between black workers and white workers; the super-exploitation of immigrants as they came to this country and again the use of xenophobia to divide workers along the assembly line (which, however, has cut both ways, as conditions of oppression on the shop floor also brought workers together who would not have worked together through the trade unions); the role of the United States as something of a “safety valve” during its early history and westward expansion; and the relative class mobility within the United States in comparison to Europe.


Industrial unionism in this country arrived relatively late but it made significant inroads when it arrived, and it arrived in a relatively explosive fashion during the Great Depression — not at the beginning of the Depression, but around 1934. The labor movement had been knocked to its knees by the Depression, but as conditions became so bad, some sort of resistance was necessary. There were three significant strikes in 1934 and it is worth noting that all of them were led by ostensible revolutionaries. A waterfront strike in San Francisco was led by the Stalinized Communist Party, the Toledo Auto-lite strike was led by the Mustyites (who would then merge into the Trotskyist movement in this country), and the Minneapolis Teamster strike was led by the Trotskyists. These three strikes really paved the way for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (the CIO). The relatively short period of time in which there was a mass labor revolt ended up being tamed, essentially, by the politics of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration in the early years of World War Two; ultimately with a certain complicity by both the Stalinists and the Social Democrats, who were willing to subordinate the independence of the working class struggle in the U.S. to the imperialist drive for World War Two through things like the No-Strike pledge and the compulsory union arbitration (which the bureaucracy of the labor movement was willing to accept in exchange for dues check-off and union recognition).


There was opposition to this — John Lewis, of course, famously opposed the No-Strike pledge. The Minneapolis Teamsters were quite vocal in their opposition to it and, in July of 1941, FDR arrested twenty-nine Trotskyist leaders, many of them associated with the Teamster union in Minneapolis, for their opposition to the No-Strike pledge around the Smith Act Laws. There was relative quiescence until the end of World War Two when there was a massive strike wave from 1945-1946 with almost nine million workers striking. Truman responded with sweeping strike-breaking legislation including Taft-Hartley. And the legacy of Taft-Hartley is something we are living with today. Also in the immediate period following World War Two came the Red Purge (the McCarthy period) with the removal of many seasoned militants from union movement. The only politics permitted at that time (in the 1950s) were essentially that of the bureaucracy.


This poses the task of the labor movement today. The most essential need is the fight to bring political consciousness back into the labor movement, as opposed to the contest between various factions in the bureaucracy of the labor movement and the sort of “lesser-evilism” that prevails within the trade union movement. What needs to happen is the construction of programmatic based caucuses within the trade union movement that are able to pose political issues beyond the simple bread-and-butter issues within trade union movements today — to take the fight beyond mere defensive posturing into something that actually speaks to the need for the emancipation of the working class.


One of the things our organization uses as a model for that (within our very modest limitations) is the Transitional Program which was the founding document within the Trotskyist Fourth International in 1940. The Transitional Program was conceived by Trotsky as a way of bringing forward very immediate demands that could be raised within the unions and within the movements of social struggle that would at the same time pose the fundamental question of capitalism and be a bridge to a revolutionary consciousness for workers. One of the examples I have really looked to has been the work that has been done in the International Longshore Union in the 1970s and 1980s by the then-revolutionary Spartacist League. In their program, the militant Longshoreman called for six hours of shifts at eight hours pay (so with no pay cut) which reflected the Transitional Program’s “30 For 40” for the defense of the hiring hall: that is, the union would control the assignments and where workers would work on unloading ships; for the defense of the union conditions and safety through job actions without reliance on the government; for building labor solidarity; and for opposing employer and government strike-breaking, including by defying injunctions. They raised anti-Fascist demands, which were also meant to be a bridge to the largely Black and Latino workforce in the union and to recognize the oppression that workers faced under capitalism. They called for international working class actions and for a break with the Democratic and Republican parties.


The legacy of this, even though the caucuses have not existed as such for almost 20 years now, is that many of the militants who went through that experience later participated in struggles, such as the 1984 Hot-Cargoing actions against South African goods being brought into the U.S., a one-day Longshore strike against the War in Iraq on the West Coast, and a one-day job action that shut down ports down the West Coast, demanding freedom for Mumia Abu Jamal.


In some ways, during this recession we are in a period analogous to the strikers in 1934 during the Great Depression, in that working conditions have been pushed back so much, people are working so many more hours for so much less money, and unemployment has lingered for so long, that people are beginning to fight back simply because they cannot survive this way much longer, and we are seeing this at the very bottom of the workforce with things like the fast food workers strike. If we had a union movement that was not completely bureaucratized and corrupted at this point, it would be putting a lot more energy into reaching out and organizing low-wage workers, and that is a role that conscious Marxists should play within the trade union movement.


RP:  I don’t know what my label is — I said I like “slightly imaginary Sweden,” so I guess that makes it sound like I’m social-democratic. I take a lot of inspiration from the fast food workers strike. They are raising the issue of living wages for themselves. Obviously, it’s not the same thing as fighting for shorter hours and a guaranteed income, but effectively it is addressing the issue of shorter hours, because if you can make 15 dollars an hour instead of 7.25 dollars an hour, then you don’t have to work seventy hours!


I think that there are some really positive things happening in the labor movement. I think the Nurses’ Union is the most creative, militant, exciting union in the country and part of the reason is that they are raising issues specific to nurses but then they broaden their agenda. Their agenda includes Medicare for all — so, single-payer. If you had single-payer health insurance, people wouldn’t have to have a job to have health insurance; they would have health insurance because they live here. Secondly, the Nurses’ Union has been in the leadership on the so-called “Robin Hood tax,” that is to tax Wall Street. It is not a revolutionary demand but it is a very powerful challenge to the prerogatives of Wall Street, and the fact that it is coming from nurses — the Boston Herald ran their editorial, saying, “This is absurd! Nurses? Since when are nurses supposed to tell us how to run the financial market?” Nurses should be telling financial barons how to run the financial market! Another positive area, though limited at this point, is the merging of the labor activists with the environmental movement (as opposed to seeing the labor movement as opposed the environment because of this notion that there is this necessary, fundamental trade-off between protecting the environment and creating jobs). These kinds of things are bubbling up. Finally, I think these things capture the spirit of Occupy. I see these as more positive developments than Occupy, if you had to make these comparisons, precisely because they are tied to specific demands. In my view, the thing that made Occupy dissipate was that in the end, there were no demands.


SA: I am going to try to explain what Fred Jameson is talking about when he says Capital is about unemployment. I haven’t talked to Fred about it; he and I established a journal called Social Text many years ago, we still are very good friends and I think I know what he’s thinking. One of the most important sections ofCapital is where Marx talks about the production of relative surplus value. Relative surplus value is the process of capitalist production when the machines increase the productivity of labor even as their profit rate on a per-unit basis declines and also, machines increase the volume of production at the same time. Now, if you think about capitalist production over a very long period of time, and Marx really thought this way, what you find is that even with ostensible economic growth, the part played by labor in the production of material goods declines. I’ll just give you one example: automobile workers used to put in parts by hand when I worked in automobile plants; now, robots actually combine the tasks so that the same workers produce what used to be produced by seven or eight others. There used to be 600,000 workers in the steel industry, and now there about 100,000 workers in the steel industry: 15 percent. 15 percent in the textile industry, and so on.


The way in which capitalism has solved the problem of what would be mass unemployment is by transferring employment to what is called the “services”, which are super-exploited and pay very low wages. We all know this story; that is why the fast food workers are out there, that is why the Walmart workers are out there. The point is, if they begin to organize — and they are beginning to organize, and I think they are entirely right to do so — then [capitalists] are going to put more automation into the process of retailing and that means they are going to eliminate labor. That is one of the ways capital recoups losses as a result of higher wages and the building of union strength. So we are always between unions’ aggressive fight for better wages and better conditions and capital’s reaction. That is what the class struggle is and capital’s reaction is always to eliminate labor.


Therefore, labor has to begin to ask the question, “Should we be working anyways? Or for so long? Should we be working at all if we get to be a certain age? Should we actually have a 55 year, instead of a 65 or 70 year, retirement age?” This would be a form of unemployment that would be well-paid because we would have guaranteed income. Jameson is referring to how, in Capital volume 1 and volume 3 and the Grundrisse, Marx is talking about the conditions in which labor becomes increasingly significant but at the same time becomes increasingly redundant. And that is the contradictory aspect of the history of capitalism.


JW: At a conference called Rethinking Marxism I presume we all agree that unemployment is endemic to capitalism and is a part of how capitalism operates, both in having a reserve labor force it can shift around and also in the role unemployment plays in suppressing wages. During the 1934 Minneapolis Teamster strike I referred to, militants organized support for unemployed workers and raised support for demand for unemployment relief; militants also tried to get unemployed workers to be a part of supporting the picket lines that the Teamsters were organizing. They did this not only because the strike was largely led by Trotskyist militants who had a Marxist consciousness, but also for the very pragmatic reason that they knew the bosses would try to utilize unemployed workers as strikebreakers — that with massive unemployment during the Great Depression, the unemployed could be lured into betraying the strike movement. By being advocates of and tribunes for the unemployed, they showed that the Minneapolis Teamsters were on the same side as the unemployed. Anyone with any experience in practical trade union organizing today knows the distance between that philosophy and the philosophy under which many union bureaucracies now operate on a day-to-day basis is substantial. I have been part of several unions in the past 20 years and to the degree that there is a concern with unemployment issues, it is a general welfare concern that is part of a general liberal ideology, but not from the perspective of the reorganization of society on a fundamentally different basis.


That [militant] perspective fundamentally comes from a consciousness that arises from something beyond simple economic struggle. That is Lenin’s true insight in seeing the need for a vanguard party, in seeing the need for a revolutionary organization that could bring consciousness to the working class from outside the class and be a leader in class struggle. It really takes a political intervention into the trade union movement at this point to renew it, to fight for leadership, to pose questions from a truly revolutionary perspective, and to show workers that it is within their own interests to call for the abolition of capitalism. It is not a matter of getting a better deal, of getting a few more crumbs from the table, but of transforming society: those who work the means of production should be those who own the means of production.


This won’t surprise anyone, but I don’t think that the Northern European countries are a model or a solution. They offer a form of capitalism in which the rough edges have been sanded off; in which the fundamental exploitation and the fundamental alienation remains; where the labor is still for a wage; where the labor is still an exploitation from which someone else is profiting. The welfare state is simply robust enough that it can support the workers above a minimal level, but the reality is that it will all be taken away again when an economic crisis hits. That is the lesson from the decline of the American century: compare when the U.S. was wealthy from the reconstruction following World War Two and a massive expansion of industry, to the state of the U.S. today.





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