by Andrew Kliman, author of The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession (Pluto Books, 2012) and Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital”: A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency (Lexington Books, 2007).
This article was originally published in New Left Project, on Sept. 13, 2013
The vision of a “post-work” society––one in which the fruits of technological progress take the form of reduced work-time rather than more consumer goods and services––has recently enjoyed a measure of renewed interest and support in parts of the left. There’s the essay by John Quiggin, a social-democratic Keynesian economist and author of Zombie Economics; articles by Peter Frase and Chris Maisano in Jacobin magazine; and, from a somewhat different perspective, David Graeber‘s recent thoughts on “bullshit jobs”.
Post-work is certainly not a novel idea, but it’s a good one… sort of. In 2011, the average consumption of the 80-plus percent of people who live outside of the “high-income” countries was only eight percent of the U.S. average, so the urgent priority for most of the world’s people is more consumption, not less work. And why shouldn’t individuals choose the form––less work or more stuff––in which they personally benefit from technological progress? Different strokes for different folks. Is it really the job of the left to become the shadow nanny state?
That said, reduced work-time is hard to argue against. And I wouldn’t want to argue against it even it if were easy.
But why is post-work catching on at this particular moment, when lack of work is the immediate and intractable problem faced by tens of millions of workers in Europe and the U.S.? Quiggin tells us that the renewed interest is the result of Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s promotion of a 1930 essay in which John Maynard Keynes suggested that a 15-hour workweek would become feasible by about 2030. But the underlying goal is to give social democracy a human face—for even its proponents find it rather desiccated in its received form. Quiggin recognizes that
if Keynesian social democracy is to regain the dominant position it held from the end of Keynes’s own lifetime until the ’70s, it must offer more than a technocratic lever to stabilise the economy. We need a vision of a genuinely better society.
Maisano expresses such a vision quite nicely. In a passage I wish I had written, he says:
The one-sided focus of most Marxists and socialists on distributional questions has obscured the fact that the animating principle of the Left is not so much equality, but rather freedom—freedom from alienating work and freedom to use our time and creativity for our own self-directed ends. Socialism does not equal the roughly equal distribution of stuff; the martyrs of the labour movement didn’t give up their lives so that everyone could have the right to buy an iPhone or a plasma screen TV, or to waste their lives working at crap jobs.
However, the problem is that this vision is being used to entice us to rally round the same old social-democratic technocratic lever-pulling. To make the vision a reality, we supposedly have to start with what Quiggin calls “[t]he first step … the social democratic agenda associated with post-war Keynesianism”––guaranteed minimum income, more social services, allocation of investment funds on the basis of “social need rather than market signals of price and profit,” and so on.
The problem here is that Keynesianism and social democracy don’t work. They failed in the global economic crisis of the 1970s and they failed when Mitterrand’s government tried to implement them in France shortly thereafter. These events killed them off––for good, I thought. But since the latest global crisis can’t easily be blamed on Keynesianism and social democracy, they’ve recently risen from the dead (zombie-like, as Quiggin might say).
Mitterrand’s experiment is particularly important to revisit. It definitely wasn’t your standard post-war social-democracy. I was very excited about it at the time. In coalition with the Communists, Mitterrand’s Socialist Party came to power in the spring of 1981, promising rapid economic growth and reduced unemployment. The new government nationalized a lot of industry and virtually the whole of France’s financial sector became directly government controlled. New laws strengthened the power of the trade unions. The minimum wage was increased several times; by the end of 1982, it had risen by 39%. Rent controls and new taxes were imposed, including a wealth tax and a maximum 75% tax rate on income. Private healthcare was curtailed. Significant capital controls to prevent the outflow of funds from France were already in place and the new government strengthened them further.
And in order to solve the country’s serious unemployment problem, the government engaged in fiscal stimulus, the central bank pursued an easy-money policy, and (proponents of reduced work take note) measures to reduce working time, without cutting pay, were implemented. Specifically, paid holiday time was raised from four weeks a year to five, and the workweek was cut from 40 hours to 39 as the first step in a plan to reduce it to 35 hours by 1985.
These are the sorts of “transitional” measures that folks like Quiggin and Maisano dream about. But they just didn’t work. They turned out to be a transition to nothing but “socialist austerity” and the French Socialist Party’s abrupt turn to free-market economics a couple of years later.
Despite the stimulative policy and the reduction in working time, economic growth remained very weak and the unemployment rate kept rising. Indeed, outside the government sector and those sectors of the economy dominated by state-owned monopolies, employment fell by almost 4% between 1981 and 1984, while the number of hours worked fell by more than 8%. And inflation kept rising even as it was abating in most other industrialized countries, which is something an export-dependent economy like France’s could ill afford.
This debacle had three main sources:
• The new government and its policies spooked businesses and the financial markets. Despite tightened capital controls, there was substantial flight of capital from France. There was also a speculative attack on the currency that began even before Mitterrand was elected, and France’s stock market plummeted by about 20% in May and June 1981 and kept falling. When the government executed its about-face two years later, the market had declined by about 40%.
• The combination of rising inflation, increased domestic spending, and recession abroad caused French exports to fall and import spending to rise, and this imbalance produced a currency crisis that the central bank and capital controls could not contain, even when the government began to back away from its more ambitious reforms. France’s currency was devalued three times; by the end, its value had fallen by 32% against the German mark.
• French companies’ labour costs rose as a result of the lengthening of holiday time, shortening of the work week, and minimum wage increases. This cut into profits, partly for the obvious reason and partly because French exports became less competitive. As a result of the reduction in profitability and, perhaps, the stock-market plunge, productive investment fell. And the declines in investment and demand for French exports erased the temporary stimulative effect that the government’s fiscal and monetary policies would otherwise have had.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. The reduction in working hours was supposed to create more jobs due to “work sharing.” And according to the trickle-up economics underlying government policy, minimum wage increases were supposed to fuel consumption spending and thereby stimulate productive investment, even as they cut into profits.
The Mitterrand government’s policies failed because they were based on a serious misunderstanding of how capitalism operates. Unfortunately, similar misunderstandings underlie recent advocacy of post-work society, which proceeds as if the goal can be achieved within capitalism, by making the latter into something it’s not.
Above all, the new post-work advocates evince a similar failure to appreciate the centrality of profit to the capitalist system. In his piece “Against Jobs, For Full Employment,” Frase quotes and endorses the following bit of wisdom from Michał Kalecki, the co-founder of “Keynesianism”:
under a regime of permanent full employment, the “sack” would cease to play its role as a “disciplinary” measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow. Strikes for wage increases and improvements in conditions of work would create political tension. It is true that profits would be higher under a regime of full employment than they are on the average under laissez-faire, and even the rise in wage rates resulting from the stronger bargaining power of the workers is less likely to reduce profits than to increase prices, and thus adversely affects only the rentier interests. But ‘discipline in the factories’ and “political stability” are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the “normal” capitalist system.” [emphasis added]
Come again? Profits are going to be higher even as discipline in the factories is eroded and strikes break out all over the place? Kalecki is often identified as a Marxist economist, but he seems to have been clueless about how profit is created. But he then tells us that profits don’t matter much anyway; the goal of business leaders isn’t to maximise their profits, but to maintain their class rule. To what end?
Graeber has almost identical illusions. Why, he asks, are more and more people at work who don’t need to be, “salaried paper-pushers” who spend most of their working hours “organising or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets”? Since this isn’t profitable for the companies that employ them, “[t]he answer clearly isn’t economic.” Instead, “the only explanation” for why companies waste money employing a whole class of people to do next to nothing is that the system operates this way because it’s “perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital.” Again, to what end?
And just because a prosaic economic explanation for the existence of these “bullshit jobs” isn’t immediately apparent, that is no warrant for rushing to the conclusion that the explanation is “clearly” non-economic, any more than the existence of puzzles that haven’t yet been solved by evolutionary theory “clearly” warrants an embrace of creationism. I’m no expert on this matter, but even I can come up with two possible economic explanations that might help account for the existence of “bullshit jobs”––principal-agent problems and the theory of “labour as a quasi-fixed factor.” (I’m resorting to unintelligible jargon because what’s relevant here are not the explanations themselves, but the fact that economists have proposed economic explanations of phenomena that seem rather similar.)
Quiggin begins his essay by telling us that he became an economist “when utopian ideas were everywhere, exemplified by the Situationist slogan of 1968: ‘Be realistic. Demand the impossible.’” He, however, was different. He has always “preferr[ed] to think in terms of the possible.” The problem is that it just ain’t so.
A key plank of his zombie Keynesian agenda is a guaranteed minimum income. He proposes that everyone be guaranteed a level of income “significantly better than poverty[-level],” and that this guarantee be “unconditional.” In other words, everyone will be entitled to adequate income even if they do nothing. They won’t even have to attend motivational seminars, or kill time updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets!
But what would happen if this proposal were implemented? Given the nature of work in our society––about which the proponents of post-work rightly complain—so many of us would jump at the chance to escape the workplace that profit would disappear, production would grind to a halt, and there would be no minimum income left to guarantee.
Quiggin is aware of this problem. His response is that “the production of market goods and services needs to become pleasant enough that those doing it don’t mind supporting others who choose not to.”
Right. And how is that going to happen under capitalism? Isn’t there an economic motive––a profit motive––behind the persistence of alienated labour, speedup, unsafe working conditions, thankless jobs, meaningless jobs, and all the rest? Or are they just more ruses, of the kinds identified by Kalecki, Frase, and Graeber, that lack any economic rationale but enable a power-crazed ruling class to stay in power?
The basic flaw in the thinking of Kalecki, Graeber, and the zombie social democrats now, and of the Mitterrand government three decades ago, is political determinism. They think that the capitalists control capitalism––not the other way around––so that the system can become something it’s not once different people with different priorities assume control of it.
I on the other hand think that historical experience and a bit of reflection show that the system has a “logic” of its own, so that what must be replaced is the system itself, not just the current personifications of it. Technological possibilities notwithstanding, there isn’t going to be much progress toward a post-work society, or indeed a lot of other good stuff, until we grapple seriously with the fact that capitalism operates as it does because of its autonomous logic, not because of the specific priorities of those who happen to be running the system at any particular moment. If we don’t deal with this problem head-on, the inspiring post-work vision will simply degenerate into a slogan used by wannabe personifications of capitalism to win support for their efforts to replace the current personifications.
 Author’s calculations based on World Bank data for population and household final consumption expenditure at purchasing power parity (in constant international dollars of 2005). Source: World Development Indicators, The World Bank.
 It’s created by workers––if and when they do what they’re told, in the way they’re told, and as fast as they’re told, not when they’re ignoring instructions, taking long breaks, sabotaging production, working to rule, and going out on strike. (I haven’t forgotten about demand; there’s no demand for products that don’t exist because workers haven’t produced them.)