Labor and Leisure after Capitalism

Duncan Law has a great new post expanding on this comment. He deals with the speculative question of what the socio-economic structure of Marxian communism would be, focusing on his own favored answer, the ‘abolition of labor’. I’m certainly not opposed to such speculation — I’ve already engaged in a bit during the short lifespan of this blog — but I think it’s important to note, as I’m sure Duncan would agree, that theoretical speculation on this matter can only take us so far, and that at least part of the reason why Marx left ‘communism’ so underdetermined is because its content can only be worked out in the real, practical process of the abolition of capitalism. Anticipating what forms of social organization will effectively and sustainably replace those of capital is by no means a science unto itself; it at best will generate hypotheses to be submitted to the crucible of social reality.

Duncan begins by specifying that what ‘abolition of labor’ means depends on what we mean by ‘labor’. Now in chapter 7 of Capital, Marx puts forward a very general and apparently trans-historical definition of the term:

Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will.

Now to be clear, I endorse the same sort of Pepperellian reading of this definition as Duncan, according to which

Marx starts off defining it very broadly, and then shows how this very broad category is made available as a category – made ‘socially valid’ (and also socially portable, as it were) – by much more specific social conditions. Those (capitalist) social conditions are what Marx wants to abolish.

My main question is whether undermining the specific social conditions under which this definition presently secures social validity necessarily excludes the possibility that very different social conditions might also validate this definition, or something close to it. I’d say that an advanced post-capitalist society could very well support such a conception of labor, perhaps with modifications, especially emphasis on the necessarily social character of both purposive imagination and the physical process of its actualization. Yet while Duncan assumedly would agree that something like the activity described above would still be distinctively recognizable in post-capitalist society, he refuses to identify this with ‘labor’, opting for a more restricted definition of the latter.

Duncan then lists two distinct shapes the undermining of capitalism might take, one involving the end of surplus extraction, the other the end of wage labor. Duncan, however, sees the first as at best a conservative strategy that doesn’t go far enough, and the second as necessary but insufficient to achieve what he sees as two basic political demands in Marx’s work:

Marx basically wants: 1) Everyone to have a lot more leisure time. 2) People’s access to the necessities (and luxuries) of life not to be principally mediated via reward for work.

Duncan claims that for Marx, these two goals are achievable due to the displacement of the burden of subsistence-ensuring activity from human labor to the relatively-autonomous productive activity of machine-systems.

If you like, Marx basically wants a slave society, but with machines instead of slaves. This social and technological possibility is very historically new, but Marx thinks we should seize it, and create a society in which labour (as an economic institution) will not be at the centre of anyone’s lives.

I disagree with Duncan that Marx would advocate a social organization in which almost all necessary (subsistence-ensuring) labor is performed by machinery, and thus in which most of our time is reassigned to ‘leisure’. I’ll bracket for now all the problems associated with the conception, production, upkeep, and modification of this machinery. My real problem is that ‘leisure’, in this account, is left too underdetermined, and correspondingly, ‘labor’ is overdetermined. The two are clearly opposed, but while I assume we can agree that human behavior in either category is composed in large part of intentional end-oriented activity, it is unclear to me how the two are demarcated. Is labor activity that is unpleasant and undesired? Is it activity in accord with an end not of one’s own choosing? Is it activity necessary for survival? In any case, I’m not sure how we get from a socially-valid conception of labor as intentional end-oriented activity to labor as a species of such activity abstractly opposed to another, i.e. ‘leisure’.

My objection here is that any means of distinguishing between these two categories would be dependent on the given mode of social relations in which the distinction becomes valid. So, for example, any of the above-listed definitions of labor (and the implied negative definition of leisure) are premised upon relations in which one must, for some portion of one’s time, engage in activity not of one’s own choosing to survive, only able to pursue one’s own ends in whatever time remains. Yet if these relations no longer exist, and hence survival is not contingent upon working on behalf of ends other than one’s own, then the basis of this distinction between labor-time and leisure-time is lacking. I think the solution in which the amount of human activity necessary for their survival is reduced to an absolute minimum by virtue of productivity being massively increased through machinery is problematic because it retains the distinction indigenous to capitalism in which activity oriented toward survival is undesirable and exclusive of individually-determined ends over and above mere survival.

I agree that in a post-capitalist mode of production, the ability to survive should not be “mediated via reward for work”, and moreover, that it should not be mediated by either voluntary or involuntary forfeiting of one’s time to heteronomously determined ends. Yet for my dollar, this would entail not the absolute reduction of activity necessary for subsistence, but the collective egalitarian determination of both subsistence- and surplus-productive activity. This doesn’t mean that individuals shouldn’t have any time for personal-end-oriented activity, but nor does it mean that all their time should be devoted to such activity. If we want to retain a distinction between labor and leisure along the lines of activity necessary for one’s survival and activity whose end one personally and solely determines, this does not exclude the possibility of a determination of labor-processes in which one participates as an equal.

In short, Duncan faces the same difficulty here as ‘pro-labor’ anti-capitalists, that of showing how the concept of leisure can obtain social-validity on the basis of a very different set of practical conditions that those currently existing. Without doing so, it is not clear that he isn’t simply applying a distinction whose validity is rooted in the capitalist mode of production to a hypothetical post-capitalist mode. Thus, while I agree with the general spirit of Duncan’s position, and agree that a post-capitalist mode would need to greatly increase productivity though machinery so as to greatly reduce the necessary amount of subsistence-productive activity, I don’t think an absolute reduction of such activity is either necessary or preferable, and its appearance as such is due to a prejudice inherited from capitalist social relations.

I think a better way of understanding a post-capitalist mode of production is in terms of a collective, egalitarian system of determining the process of subsistence-productive activity, one in which work is fairly and equitably distributed. There is thus a third way of conceiving a properly Marxist social transformation that Duncan does not mention: passage from an oligarchic and authoritarian determination of the production process, including an ever-increasing surplus-production whose product is appropriated by the controlling minority, to a collective and egalitarian determination of the production process. The latter would certainly not necessarily require no surplus-production, and in fact it may require the opposite; but it certainly would not require capitalism’s hysterical fixation on an ever-increasing surplus-product. On this tack, this collective management of production would also entail collective management of both surplus production and the surplus-product. And while the nature of such “collective and egalitarian” forms of organization is left intentionally underdetermined here, I will say that I see no reason for it to entail a single and all-encompassing system of social decision making, and may very well devolve to a number of federated, mutually non-impinging collective bodies universally governed only by principles of solidarity, equality, and liberty.

This brings me back to the origin of my conversation with Duncan: the labor theory of value. If I am not prepared to abandon the LTV, it is in part because it seems obvious that we are currently engaged in productive activity vastly in excess of what is necessary to sustain human civilization, and the LTV gives us a pretty direct way of measuring that excess. Without some form of abstract quantitative comparison, I’m not sure how one would determine that there is a surplus of production over subsistence at all. I don’t think Marxist politics should simply advocate an end of exploitation in the sense of returning surplus value to the individual workers in the form of an increased wage, but nor do I think it should abjure the role of human labor in the production process altogether.

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8 Responses to Labor and Leisure after Capitalism

  1. duncan says:

    Hi Reid – thanks for the response and the kind words. I won’t have time to comment on this properly for a little while – I’m sorry – but I’ll say very quickly that I basically think our disagreement is a terminological one. I think we’re mostly just using the terms ‘labour’ and ‘leisure’ in slightly different ways, rather than disagreeing substantively about desirable post-capitalist institutions. I’m definitely not meaning to suggest, when I talk about the abolition of labour, that this idea is opposed to the idea of the collective and egalitarian management of production, and like you I’m interested in the question of what institutions could enable that without appealing to command-economy structures. I’ll expand on this when I have a bit more time though.

    You may have seen it already, but this Insurgent Notes piece is I think really relevant to the labour/leisure question, and is also just a first-rate piece of intellectual history w/r/t the genealogy of the left-liberal Keynesian approach to unemployment.

    Anyway, I’ll respond more fully when I can. Cheers…

    • reidkane says:

      Thanks Duncan. I suppose I was responding more to a hypothetical position you seemed to be leaning toward than to your own, especially given the brevity of your explanation of it. I kinda suspected we were more on the same page than it appeared, but I figured I’d use it as an opportunity to flesh out my own position in opposition to an apparently counterposed one. I look forward to continuing the discussion when you have the time. Thanks for the link!

  2. duncan says:

    [Who wouldn’t want to live in the society depicted in your picture, btw? 😛 My only concern is the button labeled ‘commuter helicopter’. Where is this man commuting to? And on whose behalf? ;-)]

    • reidkane says:

      Seriously. And also, what situations would oblige the ‘jet car’ as opposed to ‘commuter helicopter’? Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to drive a jet car, but…overkill.

  3. duncan says:

    Ok, sorry about that. I’m not actually sure now how much more I’ve got to say, but quickly:

    On this point –

    theoretical speculation on this matter can only take us so far, and that at least part of the reason why Marx left ‘communism’ so underdetermined is because its content can only be worked out in the real, practical process of the abolition of capitalism. Anticipating what forms of social organization will effectively and sustainably replace those of capital is by no means a science unto itself; it at best will generate hypotheses to be submitted to the crucible of social reality.

    – yes, I definitely agree. There’s nothing ‘scientific’ about proposing alternative institutional arrangements, and no scientific method of judging their desirability. These things can only be decided in political debate and political practice. On the other hand, I think there’s a lot of fairly complex and difficult intellectual work that can be done on questions related to the alternative organisation of society – both in terms of proposing alternatives, and in terms of understanding what the consequences and preconditions of the realisation of those proposals would be: what socio-political changes would be required for those alternatives to function effectively, for instance. This work can be informed by social-scientific analysis, I think.

    Marx himself mostly only does this kind of thing negatively – critiquing the Proudhonist labour time-chit scheme, for instance, because of the unintended social consequences that would be associated with it, were it implemented. But while I understand Marx’s reasons for not himself engaging in positive speculative work, I think that kind of intellectual work can be important. (Although I’m not actually doing this kind of work myself…)

    On the labour/leisure front – yeah, I think this is terminological. There’s no reason why what I’m calling ‘leisure’ couldn’t include large-scale, long-term, collective, egalitarian endeavours, for instance. And although people often I think hear the proposal as a bit sci-fi, I don’t think it is: we’ve got incredible labour-saving technologies already in existence; it’s just that capitalism isn’t oriented towards labour-saving across society as a whole – it’s oriented towards labour creation across society as a whole (plus reserve-army-of-labour creation, which keeps wages down; i.e. this is part of the same dynamic). So although I use the slave-society-with-machines analogy, I’m not really thinking of robot valets (fun though they are :-P) – I’m just thinking about a different social organisation of current productive technologies. (This is basically what Marx means with his forces / relations of production distinction, imo.)

    Eric’s comment in the other thread made me look at Cleaver’s Reading Capital Politically, which I’ve been meaning to for a while. And (although I may eventually disagree with some stuff in it, I guess) I think he’s basically right, both w/r/t labour/leisure, and w/r/t Marx’s strategic use of the LTV to express the labour/leisure point. (i.e., for Cleaver the point of Marx’s version of the LTV is really to say that capitalism’s creation of value, on the one hand, correlates with the social control of the populations of capitalist societies via the imposition of labour, on the other. If that’s what’s meant by the LTV, I have no problem with it. (But it’s sort of the opposite of what a lot of people mean by the LTV. * sigh *))

    Here’s how Cleaver puts it anyhow:

    But the measure of capital’s imposition of work is value and the index of its control is surplus value. If the development of machinery proceeds to the point where it eliminates the need for work, then capital is faced with a fundamental crisis. “Capital itself is a moving contradiction, (in) that it presses to reduce labor time to a minimum, while it posits labor time, on the other side as the sole measure and source of wealth. . . . it wants to use labor time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created.”24 The crisis appears because capitalist production is not concerned with production as such but with social control through the imposition of work through the commodity-form and thus the realization of value. But if “labor in the direct form” ceases “to be the great well-spring of wealth, labor time ceases and must cease to be its measure and hence exchange-value (must cease to be the measure) of use-value.”25

    Marx saw in the development of this contradiction the growing potential for workers to liberate themselves from work and for the overthrow of capital. He saw that it would become increasingly difficult for capital to find ways of imposing work as productivity grew and that it would be increasingly obvious to the working class that work should be decreasing rather than increasing. With the growing contradiction between the rising level of social productivity and capitals continuing insistence on more work, working-class struggle has more and more taken on the character of a struggle against work. In the terms I have used here, this amounts to a reopening of the question of whether capital has the power to impose work through the commodity-form — at any price. Thus the depth of the current crisis. What is in question is the very survival of the system. Either capital finds new ways to impose work and hence realize value, or the working-class struggle against work explodes the system and founds a new one.

    Today the creation of a new social order no longer requires a return to the land and handicrafts, as some socialists — romantic or scientific — think, but rather includes the fuller development of a highly productive social system of adequate wealth and of work which decreases, rather than increases, as productivity grows. In such a system, as Marx so brilliantly foresaw a century ago, “the measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labor time, but rather disposable time.”26 Thus the development of capital, driven on by working-class demands, has created the real material foundation to go beyond “the reduction of necessary labor so as to posit surplus labor” to a system devoted to “the general reduction of the necessary labor of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific, etc., development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them.”27

    (Marx quotes are all from the Grundrisse.)

    • reidkane says:

      I started writing this comment only to find myself quoting from yours and agreeing with basically everything you say. Thanks for the Cleaver reference, I agree with everything he says here, and definitely subscribe to an interpretation of labor value as the form of appearance of a social-control system. I’ve got to crack his book open.

  4. Pingback: Pepperell on Marx’s Critical Method | The Luxemburgist

  5. duncan says:

    Hmm… further development of the forces of production here. ;-P

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