Michael A. Lebowitz
April 24, 2008 -- As May Day
approaches, there are four things that are worth remembering:
For workers, May Day does not celebrate a state holiday or gifts from the state
but commemorates the struggle of workers from below.
The initial focus of May Day was a struggle for the shorter workday.
The struggle for the shorter workday is not an isolated struggle but is the
struggle against capitalist exploitation.
The struggle against capitalist exploitation is an essential part but not the only part of the struggle against
I want to do today is to set out some ideas about the capitalist workday and
the socialist workday which I hope can be useful in the current struggles in
Venezuela and, more immediately, in today's discussion.
The capitalist workday
is the relation between the work the capitalist workday and exploitation? When
workers work for capital, they receive a wage which allows them to purchase a
certain amount of commodities. How much is
that wage? There is nothing automatic about the wage level. It is determined by
the struggles of workers against capital.
commodities which form the worker’s wage contain a certain quantity of labour,
and those hours of labour on a daily basis are often described as the ``necessary
labour’’ of the worker -- the hours of labour necessary for workers to produce
the commodities they consume on a daily basis.
in capitalism workers do not just work their hours of necessary labour. Because
they have been compelled to sell their ability to work to the capitalist in
order to survive, the capitalist is in the position to demand they work longer
than this. And the difference between their hours of necessary labour and the total
work that workers perform for capital is surplus
labour -- the ultimate source of capital's profits. In other words, capitalist
profits are based on the difference between the workday and necessary labour;
they are based upon surplus labour, unpaid labour, exploitation.So,
the more the capitalist is able to drive up the workday, the greater the
exploitation and the greater the profit. Marx commented that ``the capitalist
is constantly tending to reduce wages to their physical minimum and extend the
working day to its physical maximum’’. How true. Marx continued, though, and
noted ``while the working man constantly presses in the opposite direction’’.
In other words, class struggle: workers struggle to increase wages and to
reduce the workday; they struggle to reduce exploitation by capitalists.
course, your workday is more than just the time spent between clocking in and
clocking out. There is the time it takes you to get to work, the time it takes
to buy the food you need to survive, the time to prepare that food -- all this
is really necessary labour and part of the worker’s workday. But since this labour
is free to the capitalist, since it is not a cost for him, it is therefore invisible to him. So, when the
capitalists want to drive down necessary labour by driving down wages (or by
increasing productivity relative to wages), it is not the labour he does not
pay for that he wants to reduce. Rather, he wants as much free labour is
possible, as much unpaid labour as possible.
is not surprising that workers want to reduce their unpaid labour for capital
and to do so by struggling to reduce the capitalist workday. But it is not only
the unpaid labour in the workday that is a burden for workers; it is also the paid labour that they are compelled to do
for capital. In other words, the problem is not only exploitation. It is the
way that capitalist production deforms working people. In the capitalist
workplace, the worker works for the goals of capital, under the control of
capital and with an organisation of production which is designed not to permit
workers to develop their capabilities but, rather, has the single goal of
profits. ``All means for the development of production’’, Marx stressed about
capitalism, ``distort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him’’
and ``alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process’’.
In other words, the process of capitalist production cripples us as human
beings. Life in the capitalist workplace is a place where we are commanded from
above, where we are mere tools that capital manipulates in order to get profits.
is why we want to reduce the capitalist workday. That is why we cannot wait to
escape. It is not only the exploitation, the unfairness and the injustice in
the distribution of income. Time away from capitalist production appears as the
only time in which we can be ourselves, a time when our activity can be free time, time for the full development
of the individual.
* * * *
Finding this article thought-provoking and useful?
Please subscribe free at http://www.feedblitz.com/f/?Sub=343373
Help Links stay afloat. Donate what you can by clicking here.
* * * *
is what it necessarily looks like within capitalism. But we have to recognise
that so many of our ideas within capitalism are infected. The most obvious
example is the phenomenon of consumerism -- we must buy all those things! What
we own defines us. The socialist answer, though, is not that everyone should own
the same things -- in other words, equalisation of alienation; rather, the
socialist idea is to end the situation in which we are owned and defined by
battle of ideas, which is central to the struggle for socialism, is based on
the alternative conception of socialism. Its focus is not to reform this or
that idea that has developed within capitalism but, rather, to replace ideas
from capitalism with conceptions appropriate to socialism. So, is our idea of
the workday within capitalism infected? And, can we get any insights into the
workday by thinking about the workday within socialism?
what do we mean by socialism? The goal of socialists has always been the
creation of a society which would allow for the full development of human
potential. It was never seen as a society in which some people are able to
develop their capabilities and others are not.
That was Marx's point in stating clearly that the goal is "an association,
in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development
of all." And this is clearly the point, too, of Venezuela’s Bolivarian constitution
where it stresses in article 20 that ``everyone has the right to the free
development of his or her own personality’’ and in the explicit recognition in
article 299 that the goal of a human society must be that of ``ensuring overall
contrast to capitalist society, where ``the worker exists to satisfy the need’’
of capital to expand, Marx envisioned a
socialist society where the wealth that workers have produced ``is there to
satisfy the worker’s own need for development’’. So, what is the nature of the
workday in a society oriented toward ensuring overall human development?
us begin by talking about necessary labour -- quantitatively. There is the labour
which is contained in the products we consume daily -- just like before. To
this, however, we need to add the labour that workers want to devote toward
expanding production in the future. In socialism, there are no capitalists who
compel the performance of surplus labour and invest a portion of the profits in
the search for future profits. Rather, workers themselves in their workplaces
and society decide if they want to devote time and effort to expanding satisfaction
of needs in the future. If they make this decision, then this labour is not
surplus to their needs; it forms part of what they see as their necessary labour.
Thus, the concept of necessary labour changes here.
a socialist society, further, we recognise explicitly that part of our
necessary labour is labour within the household. In other words we acknowledge
that our workday does not begin after we leave the household but includes what
we do within the household. Article 88 of the Bolivarian constitution recognises
the importance of this labour when it notes that labour within the household is
``economic activity that creates added value and produces social welfare and
concept of necessary labour and our workday within a socialist society also
includes the labour which is required to self-govern our communities. After
all, if socialism is about the decisions we make democratically in our
communities, then the time we need to do this is part of our necessary labour.
Similarly, if socialism is about creating the conditions in which we are all
able to develop our potential, then the process of education and of developing
our capabilities is also activity which is necessary.
we think about the socialist workday, in short, we think about the workday
differently. Our view of the quantity of necessary labour, for example, is not
distorted by the capitalist perspective of treating as necessary only that labour
for which capital must pay. That is the difference between the political economy
of capital and the political economy of the working class. From the perspective
of workers, we recognise as necessary labour all the labour that is necessary
for ``the worker’s own need for development’’.
the difference is not only quantitative. In socialism, the workday cannot be a
day in which you receive orders from the top (even in strategic industries).
Rather, it is only through our own activity, our practice and our protagonism
that we can develop our capabilities. Article 62 of Venezuela’s constitution makes
that point in its declaration that participation by people is ``the necessary
way of achieving the involvement to ensure their complete development, both
individual and collective’’. In other words, in every aspect of our lives (the
traditional workplace, the community, the household), democratic decision making
is a necessary characteristic of the socialist workday; through workers’
councils, communal councils, student councils, family councils, we produce
ourselves as new socialist subjects.
when we look at the workday from the perspective of socialism, we see that the
simple demand for reducing the workday is a demand
from within capitalism. Its message is simple -- end this horror! This is
an ``infected’’ conception of the workday. It starts from a view of labour as
so miserable that the only thing you can think of doing is reducing and ending
we think about building socialism, however, we recognise that the demand is to transform the workday -- to recognise
all parts of our workday explicitly and to transform that day qualitatively. Rather
than only ``free time’’ being time in which we can develop, from the
perspective of socialism it is essential to make the whole day time for building human capacities.
short, there are two ways of looking at the demand for the reduced workday: one
way talks simply about a shorter work week and thus longer weekend vacations; in
contrast, a second way stresses the reduction of the traditional workday in
order to provide the time on a daily basis for education for self-managing, for
our work within the household and our work within our communities. In other
words, it is the demand to redefine and
transform our workday.
first of these is simply a reform within capitalism. For socialists, May Day
should be the day to struggle for the whole
worker's day, to struggle for the socialist
A. Lebowitz is professor emeritus of economics at SimonFraserUniversity in Vancouver, Canada, and the author of Beyond Capital: Marx's Political Economy of
the Working Class and Build It Now:
Socialism for the Twenty-First Century. This article was presented as
initiating remarks to the ``Roundtable Discussion on the Reduction of the
Workday’’ held on April 24, 2008, at the Centro International
Miranda, Caracas, Venezuela. The event brought
together leaders from different union federations and currents, as well as a
representative from the women’s movement, to discuss the importance of the
demand of the reduction of the workday in the lead up to May Day. The event was
organised by the program ``Human Development and Transformatory Practise’’
coordinated by Lebowitz, at the Centro Internacional
This article was first published in Links -- International Journal of Socialist Renewal. If reprinting, please in include the full name of the journal, with a working hyperlink to the Links site.]