s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 57 contents
An Affirmation of Labor’s Subordination to Capital
by Geoffrey McDonald
The crisis is now in its fourth year, and everyone agrees that it’s all about one thing: jobs. First the politicians: Obama has declared that jobs will be his number one priority for the rest of his term. That is the decisive electoral issue; it’s the standard according to which people should judge the government’s performance. Economic experts of all stripes debate the effectiveness of the two stimulus packages in terms of job creation and offer various competing models for reducing unemployment. And then there are the main players in the economy, the businessmen who always complain about the difficulties they face in their efforts to create jobs: tight credit, tax burdens, overly regulated labor markets and the new health care reform law, implying that their private interest in the use of wage labor is a service to the people.
And finally the majority of the population for whom, of course, everything revolves around their only source of income: while most workers worry quietly about losing their jobs or about their prospects for finding one, others have gone out on the streets with signs reading, “save our jobs!” appealing to the government to do everything it can to save their employers.
In short, all sides seem to agree that employment is the yardstick for measuring the health of the economy and the well-being of the population. It is the overriding goal to which everyone is, or should be, dedicated. That is something everyone takes for granted, even (and perhaps especially) the left, who criticize government, business and the overall spirit of “neoliberalism” for the failure and/or lack of effort to create jobs. As if jobs are not what they really are: a means of profit for the capitalists, a place of exploitation and therefore drudgery for the workers.
…a society in which work is the ultimate need and desire of workers is one that is hostile to workers.
That’s why I want to step back for a moment and question this seemingly self-evident truism. I will argue that what critics of capitalism need to point out today is that the cry for jobs is not at all self-evident, but absurd and brutal. And that is not only true when workers say “American jobs for American workers!” and other xenophobic slogans. It is more fundamental than that: a society in which work is the ultimate need and desire of workers is one that is hostile to workers. All too many Marxists chime in with this call for work. As Marx once wrote, “to be a productive laborer [in capitalism] is ... not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.” This basic insight is crucial, and it is irreconcilable with a cry for jobs. So I am going to develop this insight a bit more, and hope it will be taken more seriously.
First point: Work is not a human need
“The American people need work.” That is a phrase that everybody takes for granted, especially in times of high unemployment. In fact, it doesn’t get any more absurd. Nobody needs work. What people need are the products of work. Work is necessary toil for producing useful things. Work is a means to an end and not an end in itself. So if the necessities are produced in less time and there is less work to be done, then everyone is happy, not worried.
But in capitalism, things are apparently not that simple. Here, there is a shortage of work—not of goods. Nobody is concerned about or claims that there is a shortage of goods. And yet people are poor and getting poorer because of a shortage of work to produce more goods. That is the first, best and most simple proof that in capitalism the purpose of work is not to satisfy people’s needs. Apparently, it serves a different purpose—and everybody knows what that purpose is: profit.
For profit there can never be enough work. The more the better. Could there be a better indicator of the antagonism between the purpose of work and those who have to do that work? And yet, because profit is the purpose of work, any work that is not useful for profit doesn’t get done. So the livelihoods of those whose work isn’t useful for profit are superfluous. This is yet another indicator of how little work in this society is a means for the people.
The truth is that people depend on work because they need the wages work pays. Otherwise, they remain excluded from the goods that exist in abundance, but that are the private property of those who have these goods produced for the sake of their profit.
So the brutality of this society does not begin when people need work and can’t find any; it begins when they have this need for work in the first place. All the problems they have finding work are a guaranteed result of this absurd need for work—and always more work.
Second point: Workers can’t create any jobs
Workers might be able to work, they might say they want to work, and in capitalism they certainly have to work—but they are unable to work on their own power, on the basis of their own need for goods. After all, the means of production are the private property of someone else. Workers are mere labor power, a mere possibility of employment. They are completely powerless to turn this possibility into a reality. They can’t just decide they will work and then go do it—that’s why they demand work, because they are dependent on somebody else giving it to them. Clearly, work isn’t their means; it’s not something they can control. In order to perform the work they need to do for their own livelihood, they have to prove useful for a different interest, that of the capitalist.
…in capitalism the purpose of work is not to satisfy people’s needs.
The capitalist, as the owner of the means of production, has the freedom to decide whether work is done, and thus whether workers who need work can earn a livelihood. So the only thing the workers can do is to demand or, better, plead for work. In short, people can live only if their labor is useful for profit. The reason for this perverse “need” to find work is their subordination to the interests of capital and its accumulation. Marx’s explanation of class society, his condemnation of capitalism, can be summed up in this strange need: Workers are excluded from the means of production, which exist as private property, and thus find themselves in the dire predicament of needing work, needing to sell the only thing they own in order to survive: their own labor power.
Third point: It is harmful to cry for jobs!
If anyone still needs more proof of how little work is the means of the workers, then take a look at how the work that is done is organized and the criterion according to which that work gets paid. Not only are most people dependent on their labor power being useful for profit in order to live, the usefulness of their labor power for profit consists in their working as much as possible and earning as little as possible. That’s because their work is the source of profit, and because their pay is a deduction from profit.
When a business wants work, it wants as much of it as possible and it wants to pay as little as possible for it so that its interest, the difference between cost and profit, is as large as possible. Because it is about profit, workers are costs—an entry on the balance sheet no different than other costs, like energy or machines, so they are squeezed for as much work as possible. So a worker can never say, “Now I have a job, I’m ok”—he ruins himself at work and still has a hard time making ends meet.
So a job is an inadequate means of subsistence —to say the least! And it is not only an inadequate means for a livelihood, but when people have a job it restricts them and harms them. The very way they earn a livelihood is a threat to their health and well-being. The need for jobs expresses an ugly truth about capitalism: people need exploitation in order to live; they are compelled to be interested in making themselves useful for economic interests that succeed at their expense. To say people need jobs is to show how dependent they are. This is an indictment of capitalism—the subordinate position that people are forced into and the role they play in it.
So the call for jobs is never addressed to workers. How could it be? Workers don’t have any control over jobs; jobs are not their means. So it is appropriate that the call for jobs is always addressed to business and the state. After all, they are the activists and profiteers of work in this society. Which brings me to my fourth point:
Fourth point: Jobs are in the interest of the state and business
On the one hand, when politicians say that job creation is their number one priority, and when businesses talk about their desire to create jobs and the difficulties they have doing so, they are being dishonest. Jobs are not the goal, profit is their goal. On the other hand, politicians and businessmen might be dishonest, but they have a good reason to call for jobs. That’s precisely what their interest is in jobs: other people’s labor is the source of capitalists’ enrichment, and the source of the growth that the state is interested in. In that sense, they really are interested in creating jobs. They say it is difficult to create jobs, but what they really mean is that it is difficult to create the conditions for profitable jobs. That is the measure of whether capitalists are producing wealth that counts.
…in capitalism even socially desirable things are not produced if there is no prospect of profit.
So how do governments and businesses go about improving the conditions for more jobs? Logically, they do this by improving conditions for business. And that involves, above all, increasing the profitability of labor. There are plenty of methods for doing so, but essentially it comes down to having people work longer hours for less pay and with greater flexibility and insecurity. That also demonstrates how jobs aren’t a means for people’s livelihoods, but the means by which capital enriches itself at the cost of those who perform labor.
So for politicians and capitalists, it makes sense to call for jobs because jobs are the source of their wealth and power. But leftists should not join this call, because (again) jobs mean being extorted. If leftists call for jobs, they are not addressing workers; after all, that is not something that workers can decide on. All they can do is make their exploitation more attractive. And even then, they are still powerless to create any jobs. Who they do address, whether they like it or not, is business and the state—those who benefit from other people’s exploited labor and also create unemployment in the pursuit of their interest in profit.
Fifth point: Leftist wishful thinking
Of course, when those on the left call for job creation, they don’t have in mind the profits of capital and the power of the state. They don’t say “get rid of unions” and “no taxes,” but “prevent outsourcing” and “tax the rich and use the money for schools and health care.” Green Jobs initiatives are particularly popular right now. But here it is noticeable that in capitalism even socially desirable things are not produced if there is no prospect of profit. And these projects are realized only and insofar as the state considers them necessary for capitalist society and they are financed by the society as a whole. This is something that needs to be criticized instead of asking whether the state could or should do something different than what it always does. Leftists have to explain the interests and systemic purposes at work and how subordinate the workers’ interests are to those of capital and the state, rather than seeking to reconcile these interests. This never works in capitalism, because this society’s purpose is the accumulation of capital rather than taking care of people’s needs. And if the state has to step in to create new industries, like with a Green Jobs initiative, it is naïve to think things will turn out any different, because what the state will be fostering is new fields of business opportunity, and nobody should be surprised by what this will look like for workers—it will mean low wages, long hours and bad conditions.
So back to the core of my topic:
What is so harmful about the call for jobs is that by calling for jobs, leftists affirm the dependency of the workers on, and their subordination to, the profits of capital. And this affirmation isn’t just an implicit theoretical act; it’s not just the premise of the call for jobs. That’s why, when it comes to practice, one solution is prominent and the call for jobs always ends up in disappointment and the complaint that exploitation increases and the workers are worse off. That’s something that unions and especially their members have been experiencing all over the world. In capitalism, the only way to fight for jobs is to accept and offer sacrifices on the part of those who need jobs, on the part of the workers.
In summary: It is a mistake to think that a job is something good because losing a job is something bad. Workers end up offering themselves at reduced, cheaper prices, and begging for jobs undermines the very reason they go to work in the first place—to get a paycheck. Instead, not only should workers “take a serious look” at their position in this system of exploitation, but a proper critique of capitalism involves telling them about that position instead of affirming it in the call for jobs.
Geoffrey McDonald is an editor of the website ruthlesscriticism.com.
[2 dec 11]