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Synthesis/Regeneration 58   (Spring 2012)

Kurzarbeit, “Living-Dead Capitalism,” and the Future of the Left

by G. S. Evans

The successful implementation of kurzarbeit as an anti-recession measure in Germany has raised once again the question of the shortened workweek as an instrument of progressive economic and social change. As used in Germany (though it is also prevalent in Austria and the Netherlands) kurzarbeit, which literally means “short work” in German, is a short-term, recession-related measure in which a workplace, instead of laying off some workers while the rest continue to work full-time, keeps all the workers on a three- or four-day workweek. The resulting difference in pay is partially made up by the government and, if workers agree to undergo job training on their days off, their pay will be fully made up. Kurzarbeit has been credited with saving nearly 500,000 jobs during the recession, keeping work teams together, and maintaining worker morale and skill levels. [1]

But if the influential French social philosopher André Gorz was correct, the reduction of the workweek is not just a short-term, recession-related issue for the European socialist and Green parties but the key to their survival, and indeed the survival of the Left in general. The reason? The increasing automation that we experience all around us—on assembly lines, in banks, even when we call a company for information—is symptomatic of a radical and profound change in the economic and political landscape, one which the Left, trapped in the inertia of its own mental categories, has completely failed to recognize.

…the reduction of the workweek is key to the survival of the Left…

The crux of Gorz’s argument is that the chronically high level of unemployment that Western Europe has been experiencing since the 1970s—and which has since deepened and spread to the former East Bloc countries and now the United States—is not indicative of a series of short-term economic problems, the failure to apply the proper neo-liberal policies to free up the market economy and thereby create jobs, or the failure to apply neo-Keynesian policies to stimulate and regulate the economy and thereby create jobs.

Rather, it’s indicative of the disintegration of a whole economic system—i.e., capitalism in its classical sense—and of the fact that this disintegration has broken the “continuity of two centuries of history, marked by the expansion of industrialism and the spread of commodity relations.” [2] The failure to solve the problem of high unemployment (even with extended schooling, early retirements, sabbaticals, and generous vacation benefits helping to reduce the number of workers on the payrolls) isn’t, according to Gorz, any more surprising than was the failure of the communist governments of the former East Bloc to solve their fundamental economic problems. Which is to say, just like them, we are trying to reform or revive an economic system that is, in essence, “dead.”

Given the seeming dynamism that the post-1989 changeover has brought to the economies of the former East Bloc countries and the continuing success of the export-oriented economies of China and Germany, Gorz’s contention that we are now living under a “living-dead capitalism” might not seem, at first glance, particularly evident. But we must not, if we are to understand his argument, confuse a world economy increasingly based on the sale of consumer goods and fueled by short-term, speculative capital (often invested in the service sector)—the one we’ve been living under and calling capitalist—with a true capitalist economy, which is to say an economy fueled by long-term capital investment in industrial production.

According to Gorz, capitalism in its true sense started to disintegrate in the West in the aftermath of World War II thanks, in part, to its very success. It had, that is, “ceased to be propelled by a spontaneous dynamic of demand, reliant on what Marxists have always called ‘basic needs:’ those whose non-satisfaction is synonymous with destitution.” Instead, with the most basic needs of its own populations having been met, it was faced with the need to create a “subject for the object,” of a demand for the supply.

“From the mid-1950s onwards,” Gorz continues, “the centers of capitalism were faced with the necessity to produce consumers for their commodities, needs to match the most profitable products. Following its spontaneous, capitalist dynamic, production had ceased to correspond to preexisting needs: inasmuch as such needs persisted (notably in housing, sanitation and public health) their satisfaction was not profitable, or not sufficiently so, for capital. And, conversely, the most profitable products did not match unsatisfied needs: these needs had to be created.”

Capitalism, then, was no longer operating according to its classical principle that a need leads to a demand which leads to a product being produced to meet that need. Instead, a technocratic superstructure developed that oversaw the advertising campaigns, urban planning, and other forms of social engineering necessary to create new needs, and the dynamic of need was no longer spontaneous. This resulted, during the 1960s, in late capitalism’s golden age, in which rising wages and levels of consumption combined with full employment to create an era of prosperity that is now the ideal to which many party political programs in the West strive to return, and which those in the East strive to achieve.

But this very prosperity soon led to a further crisis, as rising wages fueled by full employment caused a falling rate of profit—especially once the extra needs that the technocracy had created were largely satisfied and supply began to outstrip demand. Employers first responded to this in the late 1960s by trying to increase the productivity of their existing work force with a speed up of work, but when the workers successfully resisted this neo-Taylorism with sabotage, wildcat strikes and high absenteeism, “the big companies chose headlong flight: setting up subsidiaries in the Third World, launching new product lines, investing in productivity and capacity.” [p. 11] And, with the coming of the digital revolution, this “investing in productivity and capacity” increasingly meant automation. This, according to Gorz, is when another pillar of capitalism—the link between labor, the creation of value, and consumption—began to collapse. Which is to say, the increasing automation of services and industry undermines “the basic premise of industrial capitalism itself. This premise—on which the concept of ‘value’ is based and which gives rise to the ‘law of value’ that, for Marx, was the cornerstone of capitalist reasoning—is that the wage pays for labor to meet the needs which labor generates in those who supply it.” [p. 44]

…the increasing automation of services and industry undermines “the basic premise of industrial capitalism…”

Hence, “living-dead” capitalism. For, if the number of workers who create value is continually decreasing and the majority of people therefore work in the service sector, where they are, in essence, allotted a share of the earnings from the increasingly automated factories; and if a technocratic super-structure attends not only to the distribution of these earnings but to the creation of new needs, so that the factories can continue to produce consumer goods—can we still call this capitalism? Except, that is, in the broadest sense that the corporations are privately owned.

For the Left this living-dead capitalism has profound consequences in that the increasing automation is making impossible the traditional socialist dream of full employment (rigidly defined as five 7- or 8-hour work days per week for all who want or need it), and therefore the possibility that they can successfully institute programs, upon being elected to office, to make this dream into any kind of reality.

The more money that is invested in an industry, and the more research and development that is applied to it, the larger is the number of jobs that will be automated out of existence. To illustrate this we only need point to steel production in the United States, where between 1982 and 2002 total production rose from 75 million to 102 million tons per year while the work force was reduced from 400,000 workers to 120,000. [3] Even in China and India, places to which so much industrial and manufacturing production has been outsourced, the actual number of people working industrial and manufacturing jobs has declined due to the effects of automation. [4] And this trend is not new, as is shown by a study quoted by Gorz (F. Vester, Ballungsgebiete in der Krise) which showed that 1,000 million deutsche marks invested in industrial plants would have generated two million jobs in 1955–60 and 400,000 jobs in 1960-65.

…the number of workers who create value is continually decreasing…

From 1965–70 the same sum would have destroyed 100,000 jobs and from 1970–75 would have destroyed 500,000 jobs. [p. 30] Or, as Allen Sinai, chief global economist at the research firm Decision Economics, recently told the New York Times: “American business is about maximizing shareholder value. You basically don’t want workers. You hire less, and you try to find capital equipment to replace them.”

Taking this process of automation to its logical and ultimate conclusion, as Wassily Leontief, the Nobel Prize winner for economics in 1973, did in the following citation, helps illustrate the conundrum that the Left faces, especially regarding its need for a more militant and imaginative incomes policy:

Adam and Eve enjoyed, before they were expelled from Paradise, a high standard of living without working. After their expulsion they and their successors were condemned to eke out a miserable existence, working from dawn to dusk. The history of technological progress over the past 200 years is essentially the story of the human species working its way slowly back into Paradise. What would happen, however, if we suddenly found ourselves in it? With all goods and services provided without work, no one would be gainfully employed. Being unemployed means receiving no wages. As a result, until appropriate new income policies were formulated to fit the changed technological conditions everyone would starve in Paradise. [5]

Though we are still far from the scenario of full automation described by Leontief, automation has already become prevalent enough so that we can now see the first glimmerings of its realization, especially in the chronic problem of un- and underemployment. And, by not addressing this issue directly, the Left is helping to ensure that we will, in Gorz’s words, “Exit Right” in Thatcherite, or neo-liberal, form, in which, as automation abolishes workers—and thereby abolishes buyers—we will see the law of the market work effectively “and the relative prices of automation’s products fall sharply—towards a value equal to the maintenance, reproduction and operating costs of automated plant and equipment. The wage bill becomes negligible, the workforce tiny. Permanently employed workers become a narrow social stratum, alongside vast numbers of unemployed.” [p. 31] Though we have, especially in the USA, seen a tendency toward this model in cities like Detroit and Youngstown, Ohio, where large sections of the population live in deep poverty in the shadow of decrepit industrial and manufacturing plants, Gorz believed that the “monopolies and cartels [would] prevent massive price-cutting, and the products of automation (like the sale of ‘non-material goods’) [would] bring in huge profits. These profits, however, prove impossible to reinvest (that is, to accumulate as capital) because production requires less and less capital and distributes very little in wages, and thus does not generate expanding effective demand. So a large proportion of profits will have to be redistributed to enable commodities to be purchased, and to prevent the economy from collapsing.” [6]

…profits prove impossible to reinvest because production requires less and less capital and distributes very little in wages…

Thus profits become a revenue stream and consumption a duty to keep the economy going, a reality reflected in George W. Bush’s statement in the wake of 9/11 that the most important thing Americans could do was to keep going to the mall and buying consumer goods.

The Right, backed by the corporations, will be quite happy to have us continue to live under the incomes policy that they are, de facto, determining, and which is entirely to their benefit. The Left’s current approach, in which they continue to deny the need for a radical restructuring of the current incomes policy, means that they will essentially become an accomplice to the “Exit Right” scenario described above. Specifically, their energies and talents will be consumed in fighting neo-liberal elements to ensure that the working-class will be allowed to endure its increasing levels of unemployment with some dignity (i.e., that they be granted endless re-training programs leading nowhere, extended unemployment benefits, continued health insurance, etc.).

…the working-class will…be granted endless re-training programs leading nowhere…

In this context, the reaction of much of the European Left to kurzarbeit (support for it as a short-term, recession-related measure) is nothing more than a tentative acknowledgement that there might be some other solution to the unemployment problem besides the current Left program of striving for the (no longer realizable) goal of everybody working a 40-hour workweek; indeed, as one of the key points of the Czech Social Democrats’ (CSSD) proposal for instituting kurzarbeit—that “the employees shall receive training in their days off and thereby get 100% wages while at the same time improving their qualifications, and with that their value in the marketplace”—shows, the CSSD like European Social Democrat parties in general remains trapped in the logic of living-dead capitalism.

Similarly trapped in this logic are the mainstream European Green parties. The UK Green Party demonstrate their adherence to the old model when they state that “our major and immediate priority is the creation of an extra million jobs and training places within a full year of operation of our major investment plan, the Green New Deal.” [7] The furthest they are willing to go is to promise that they will work towards a 35-hour week, which “will both improve the work/life balance, help to share out work, and be part of a just transition to a low-carbon economy.”

The Czech Green Party (Strana zelených), as a part of their program “The Green Path from the Crisis,” proposes a job creation program (albeit of “green jobs”) and follows this with the standard litany of proposals: more investment, better training, more education, decent unemployment benefits, respect for the unemployed, and some job-place flexibility to allow parents to better care for their children. But, in spite of the fact that “the Green Party mainly wants to work on the reduction of long-term unemployment,” there isn’t a word from the party that pursues “policies with a view to the next 50 years, not just the next five months and from election to election,” about a fundamental rethinking of the current incomes policy. So with the Green Party it would seem that living-dead capitalism—though with an ecological tinge—would be solidly in place for at least another half century.

Nor does the traditional Marxist Left seriously challenge the full-time, full-employment paradigm. The furthest either the Communist Party of Great Britain (in their Draft Program) or the Socialist Worker’s Party (in an article buried in the archives of the Socialist Worker) [8] are willing to go is to also call for a 35-hour workweek, which is still, by any measure, full-time work. Similarly, the Czech Communist Party (KSCM), one of the largest Communist parties in Europe (and the third largest parliamentary party in the Czech Republic), proposed a 36-hour workweek, though even this modest proposal isn’t mentioned in the KSCM’s on-line and campaign literature. So it would seem that the Marxist Left, too, points to that happy land where everyone can work full-time (that is, five full days a week even if, perhaps, they are proposing that it be a 7 instead of an 8-hour day).

…with the Green Party…living-dead capitalism—though with an
ecological tinge—would be solidly in place…

Gorz, one imagines, would probably have criticized the KSCM, SWP, and the CPGB for not fully absorbing the implications of Marx’s Grundrisse, especially in regards to the nature and implications of technological change. In the case of the KSCM, this is ironic, since there is an interesting article about just this topic on their website in which František Neužil writes: “The process of liberating living labor from the control of dead labor, when automatization of production has, for example, the form of a flexibly roboticized industrial system, has for Marx not only a productive dimension, but a social-economic one as well… In the Grundrisse Marx sketched a perspective of the evolution of civilization, in which free time becomes a measure of social wealth and the growth of free time can be, from the point of view of the direct production process, considered as the production of fixed capital, in which this fixed capital is man himself.” [9]

The UK Trades Union Congress (TUC) largely ignores the issue as well. Though there is a brief discussion of kurzarbeit in the January 2010 issue of the TUC Education European Review, there isn’t a mention of either kurzarbeit or the shortened work-week in the verbatim report of the 142nd Trades Union Congress, which took place in September of 2010. Presumably because of its proximity to Germany, the Czech Trades Union Congress (CMKOS) has at least formally backed kurzarbeit, but then neglects to mention either it, or the general idea of a shorter workweek, in their official program (Program of CMKOS for the period 2010 – 2014). [10]

So none of these political parties or trade unions offer what Gorz would consider the necessarily transformative vision that would constitute an “Exit Left” solution. What would such a vision entail? Broadly speaking, Gorz argues that the Left must rediscover its roots in the early worker’s movement—and many of the ideas espoused by that movement—as “we are now reaching precisely the point that was foreseen by the first prophets of post-capitalism [e.g., Ricardo and his followers, and later Marx] when, beyond bourgeois society and nascent industrial capitalism, they predicted a different social order—one where the efficacy of technology would abolish work, the logic of capital and commodity relations, to reveal ‘disposable time’ as the measure of ‘true wealth.’” [pp. vi-vii]

Gorz, writing in 1983, points to the fact that the citizens of the 1980s could, thanks to the increased automation of production, all essentially work part-time if they lived at the consumption levels of the 1960s. And, by part-time, we are talking about less than 20 hours a week. Or, to take a more recent and even more dramatic example, since the US steel industry now produces more steel than it did in the early 1980s, but with 120,000 workers instead of 400,000, we could (even assuming for the purpose of illustration that we’d want to maintain and not reduce current levels of steel production), instead, continue to employ 400,000 workers in the industry but, instead of having them work a 40-hour workweek as they would have done 30 years ago, have them work 12 hours a week instead. With this, we can see where the implications regarding the “liberation from work” become quite radical. And even if we grant that these two examples are, by themselves, rather reductionist, they are nonetheless illustrative of the transformative potential that automation offers.

Which is to say that we could all work part-time and live quite comfortably, even before factoring in more ecological, lower-consumption lifestyles. But one of the key points in Gorz’s argument is that positing such visionary scenarios is not only an abstract matter of the Left trying to maintain its role as a progressive force that looks toward a future and better society, but also a matter of simple practicality. Which is to say, if the Left can only “wait, forlornly, for the future to give us back the past, for the economic ‘revival’ or ‘recovery’ that will provide full employment, for capitalism to rise from its death-bed, for automation to create more jobs than it eliminates,” it will continue its slide into irrelevancy.

G.S. Evans is a writer and translator who divides his time between the Czech Republic and the USA. He is also a member of the National Writers Union (UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO). A Czech language version of this article appeared in the Czech publication Listy.


1. http://www.german-info.com/press_shownews.php?pid=1638

2. Gorz, André, Les Chemins du Paradis (Galilée, 1983), the citations are from the English translation: Paths to Paradise: On the Liberation from Work (Pluto Press, 1985)

3. Eduardo Porter, Reinventing the Mill, New York Times, October 22, 2005, cited in Political Affairs (Hi-tech Capitalism and the Class Struggle, August 2007)

4. Wes Iversen, Outsourcing Not the Culprit in Manufacturing Job Loss: Productivity gains spawned by factory automation are driving a worldwide decline in manufacturing jobs, even in developing nations, Automationworld.com, December 9, 2003, http://www.automationworld.com/webonly-3. In recent history, of course, the service sector—often offering stupid and useless services (see note 6 below)—has absorbed much of the surplus created by the automation of industry, manufacturing, and agriculture, thereby “creating” jobs to offset some of those lost to automation. Given that the service sector is now being increasingly automated (not to mention privatized) and its limited ability to create new surpluses that might subsidize the creation of new jobs, this pattern seems unlikely to continue.

5. Cited in Gorz, ibid., p. i.

6. In part, I believe, this would happen through massive, speculative investment in the service sector, in which investors try to find new market opportunities. As an example, this is apparently what happened in Tucson, Arizona, where there are 23 tanning salons even though the sun shines more there in December than it does in central Europe in July. Therefore we can say, in the language of “postindustrial” capitalism, that when somebody found and took advantage of this market opening and started offering this absurd and unnecessary service, they “created” wealth and jobs.

7. http://www.greenparty.org.uk/policies/jobs_2010/jobs _detail.html

8. http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/archive/1697/sw169 709.html

9. Similarly, John Bachtell wrote an excellent article detailing the effects of automation on industry and the working class in the United States in the Communist Party USA journal Political Affairs (High-tech Capitalism and the Class Struggle, August 2007, http://www.politicalaffairs.net/high-tech-capitalism-and-the-class-struggle/). But then, except for the obligatory passing mention of a shorter workweek with no cut in pay, the author completely ignores the revolutionary implications of just how much the workweek would need to be reduced and how that changes the nature and strategy of the class struggle.

10. The major document on the AFL-CIO website concerning the unemployment crisis, David Coats, ed, Exiting from the crisis: towards a model of more equitable and sustainable growth, makes no mention of kurzarbeit and only one vague mention of “reduced working hours and overtime.” [The report is available at http://www.afl-cio.org/upload/exiting.pdf] That there is no specific mention of the 35-hour workweek anywhere on their website is especially odd given that, in 1959, the AFL-CIO passed a resolution calling for a 35-hour workweek. And this, in fact, was a step back from AFL President William Green’s 1932 call for a 30-hour workweek (both of these points being made in a comment to one of the AFL-CIO blogs by one “sandwichman” — http://blog.aflcio.org/2010/08/06/131000-jobs-lost-in-july/).

[22 aug 12]

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