Unemployment and casualization: A great challenge to the left

By István Mészáros, speech given to seminar organised by Workers Left Unity-Iran, 18 March 2000



I have chosen this subject for our discussion for two main reasons. First, because the issue concerns all shades of the left. For in our time no section of the workforce can consider itself immune to the dehumanizing hardship of unemployment and casualization. In fact casualization is more appropriately called in some languages precarization, although it is in general tendentiously misrepresented as desirable flexible employmnent. A few months ago some 25.000 employees of Westminster Bank had to face the prospect of redundancy; today the workers of the Rover car company—a bankrupt part of the proud BMW transnational corporation—are thrown to the wolves of total insecurity. The question is not whether unemployment or flexible casualization is going to threaten the people still in employment but when are they going to share the predicament of enforced precarization.

The second main reason why we must concern ourselves with this issue is because it represents an insurmountable structural problem for capital. Thus it is unthinkable that the left could work out a viable strategy for the future without giving a central place to the vital issue of unemployment and casualization.

Today I intend to consider three principal aspects of what is at stake.

  1. The globalization of unemployment and casualization, affecting even the capitalistically most developed parts of the world.
  2. The myth of flexibility with which the bitter pill is sugar-coated. For what we are talking about is in fact the grave socioeconomic trend of the downward equalization of the differential rate of exploitation.
  3. The only feasible solution to the problems we face is to move from regulating socioeconomic interchanges by submitting to the tyranny of necessary labour time (also called necessary labour) to emancipation through disposable time as the positive alternative to capital's mode of social metabolic reproduction.

As our point of departure, we may consider the question of reducing the working week to 35 hours which, not by accident, came to the fore in recent times.

1. The globalization of unemployment

Socialists in several European countries—as well as in North and South America—are fighting for the objective of reducing labour time to 35 hours per week without loss of pay. This important strategic demand is by no means free from its difficulties. For it highlights both the pressing problem of unemployment all over the world, and the contradictions of the socioeconomic system which by its own perverse necessity imposes on countless millions the hardship and suffering that goes with unemployment.

Thus the fight for 35 Hours Work cannot be a traditional trade unionist demand, confined to the long established machinery of wage negotiations. On the contrary, it has to be fully aware not only of the magnitude of the task and the long-term implications of the issues at stake, but also of the unavoidably tenacious resistance of the socioeconomic order which must follow its own imperatives in order to nullify whatever concession might be made in the legal/political sphere under conditions temporarily favourable to trade unions and to their left-wing political representatives. Understandably, therefore, in Italy for instance, the party of Rifondazione in its way of raising the issue simultaneously underlines the concern with increased employment and improved conditions of living (per l'occupazione & per migliorare la vita) and the necessity of changing society (per cambiare la società) in order to secure the envisaged objective of shortened working time on a viable social foundation. For lasting success in this matter is feasible only through a sustained interchange—a dialectical reciprocity—between the fight for the immediate objective of significantly reduced labour-time and the progressive transformation of the established social order which cannot help resisting and nullifying all such demands.

Those who deny the legitimacy of these demands, extolling instead the virtues of their cherished system, continue to idealize the US model for solving the unemployment problem as well as all social evils inseparable from it. Yet even a cursory examination of the actual state of affairs reveals that the reassurances idealizing the US belong to the realm of fantasy. For, as an Editorial of The Nation stressed it:

The poverty rate last year, 13.7 percent, was higher than in 1989, despite seven years of nearly uninterrupted growth. Approximately 50 million Americans—19 percent of the population—live below the national poverty line. Those in poverty include one in four children under the age of 18, one in five senior citizens and three of every five single parent households. In constant dollars, average weekly earnings for workers went from a high of $315 in 1973 down to $256 in 1996, a decline of 19 percent. Last year the poorest fifth of families saw their income decline by $210, while the richest 5 percent gained an average of $6,440 (not counting their capital gains). … The number of Americans without health insurance stood at 40.6 million in 1995, an increase of 41 percent since the mid-seventies. In 1995, almost 80 percent of the uninsured were in families where the head of household held a job.1

This is how rosy the American model really looks once you are willing to open your eyes. We may also add here a most significant figure supplied recently by the Budget Office of the US Congress, unobjectionable even to capital's worst apologists. It tells us that the income of the richest one percent of the population is equivalent to that of the bottom forty percent. And even more importantly, it also transpires that this appalling figure has actually doubled in the last two decades, as the consequence of capital's structural crisis. Thus no amount of cynical camouflage of the deteriorating conditions of work, no matter how eagerly misrepresented as blessed flexibility, can hide the serious implications of this trend for the future of capital-expansion and accumulation.

Naturally, unemployment statistics can be fiddled with, or quite arbitrarily defined and redefined, not only in America, but in every single country of so-called advanced capitalism. In Britain, for instance, even the professional apologists of the capital system—the editors of the London Economist—had to admit that the unemployment figures have been 33 times revised by the government in order to make them look better. Not to mention the fact that anybody who works for 16 hours per week in Britain counts as enjoying full time employment. And even more strikingly in Japan—a country until recently hailed as a paradigm case of dynamic advanced capitalismanybody who works for wages for over one hour in the last week of the month is not included in the unemployment statistics.2 But who can be fooled by such devices of economic and political manipulation? For no matter how concerted and devious the misrepresentation of the existing state of affairs, the potentially very grave challenge of unemployment cannot be avoided in any one of even the capitalistically most advanced countries. Thus, whatever the apologetic statistical figures might suggest, it is now no longer possible to conceal alarm about the constantly rising record of unemployment in Japan and the deepening economic recession that goes with it.

In reality the dramatic rise in unemployment in the capitalistically advanced countries is not a recent phenomenon. It appeared on the horizon—after two and a half decades of relatively undisturbed postwar capital-expansion—with the onset of the structural crisis of the capital system as a whole. It appeared as the necessary and ever-worsening feature of this structural crisis. Accordingly, I argued way back in 1971 that under the unfolding conditions of unemployment

the problem is no longer just the plight of unskilled labourers but also that of large numbers of highly skilled workers who are now chasing, in addition to the earlier pool of unemployed, the depressingly few available jobs. Also, the trend of rationalizing amputation is no longer confined to the peripheral branches of ageing industry but embraces some of the most developed and modernized sectors of production—from ship-building and aviation to electronics, and from engineering to space technology. Thus we are no longer concerned with the normal, and willingly accepted, by-products of growth and development, but with their driving to a halt; nor indeed with the peripheral problems of pockets of underdevelopment but with a fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production as a whole which turns even the latest achievements of development, rationalization and modernization into paralizing burdens of chronic underdevelopment. And most important of it all, the human agency which finds itself at the receiving end is no longer the socially powerless, apathetic and fragmented multitude of underprivileged people but all categories of skilled and unskilled labour: i.e., objectively the total labour force of society.3

Since the time when these lines were written we have witnessed a tenfold increase in unemployment in Britain and elsewhere. As things stand today, even according to the official—grossly understated—figures, there are more than 40 million unemployed in the industrially most developed countries. Of this figure, Europe accounts for more than 20 million, and Germany—once eulogized for producing the German miracle—has passed the 5 million mark. As to a country like India—highly praised in the traditional organs of economic wisdom for its achievements as a healthily developing country—it has no less than 336 million people on its unemployment register,4 and many more millions without proper work who should be counted but are not registered. Moreover, IMF intervention in developing countries, true to the organization's US dictated mandate, worsens the plight of the unemployed while pretending to improve the economic conditions of the countries concerned. As another Editorial of The Nation had put it:

Mexico's economy may appear to be great, but its people are hurting. Since the IMF bailout, the middle class has been crushed; 25,000 small businesses have gone belly up; 2 million workers have lost their jobs over the same time. In dollar terms, wages have plummeted 40 percent. The IMF had to destroy the domestic economy in order to save it.5

At the same time, the former postcapitalist countries belonging to the Soviet type system, from Russia to Hungary—which in the past did not suffer unemployment, though they had run their economies with high levels of underemployment—had to accommodate themselves, often under direct IMF pressure, to the dehumanizing conditions of massive unemployment. Hungary, for instance, has been congratulated by the IMF6 for stabilizing unemployment at about 500.000. In reality the figure is considerably higher, and still increasing. But even 500.000, in terms of the relatively small Hungarian population, is equivalent to having 6.5 million unemployed in Britain or Italy, and something approaching not 5 but 8 million in Germany. In the Russian Federation the situation is just as bad, and getting all the time worse, including such outrages as not paying the wages of miners and other workers for many months. Vietnam presents a particularly tragic example. For after the heroic victory of its people over the long and devastating interventionist war of US imperialism, the peace is being lost under the pressure of capitalist restoration.7 And even China is no exception to the general rule of rising unemployment, despite the very special way in which its economy is politically controlled. A confidential but leaked report prepared by its Ministry of Labour warns the Chinese government that within a few years unemployment in the country is bound to reach the staggering figure of 268 million—pointing also to the danger of major social explosions to go with it—unless appropriate (but not specified) measures are adopted to counter the present trend.8

This is how we have reached a point in historical development at which unemployment is a dominant feature of the capital system as a whole. In its new modality, it constitutes a close network of interrelations and interdeterminations whereby it is now impossible to find partial remedies and solutions to the unemployment problem in limited areas, in sharp contrast to the postwar decades of development of a few privileged countries where liberal politicians could speak about Full Employment in a Free Society.9

In recent years there has been a great deal of talk propagandizing the universally beneficial virtues of globalization, misrepresenting the trend of capital's global expansion and integration as a radically new phenomenon destined to resolve all our problems. The great irony of the real trend of development—inherent in capital's logic from the first constitution of its system centuries ago, reaching its maturity in our own time in a form inextricably tied up with the system's structural crisis—is that the productive advancement of this antagonistic mode of controlling the social metabolism throws an ever-increasing portion of humanity into the category of superfluous labour. Already in 1848, in the Communist Manifesto Marx insisted that

In order to oppress a class, certain conditions must be assured to it under which it can, at least, continue its slavish existence. … [But] the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an overriding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him.10

Ironically, thus, the development of by far the most dynamic productive system in history culminates by rendering an ever growing number of human beings superfluous to its machinery of production, although—true to the system's incorrigibly contradictory character—far from superfluous as consumers. The historical novelty of the type of unemployment in the globally completed system is that the contradictions of any specific part complicates and aggravates the problem in other parts and, consequently, in the whole. For the need for unemployment-producing downsizing, etc., necessarily arises from the antagonistic profit- and accumulation-seeking productive imperatives of capital which it cannot conceivably renounce, so as to restrain itself in accordance with rational and humanly gratifying principles. Capital either maintains its inexorable drive toward its self-expansionary targets, no matter how devastating the consequences, or it ceases to be capable of controlling the social metabolism of reproduction. There can be no half-way house or even the slightest attention paid to human considerations. This is why the first time ever in history a dynamic—and in its ultimate implications dynamically destructive—system of self-expansionary social metabolic control arises which ruthlessly ejects, if necessary, the overwhelming majority of humankind from the labour process. This is the deeply disturbing meaning of globalization.

When capital reaches this stage of development, it has no way of addressing the causes of its structural crisis; it can only fiddle with effects and surface manifestations. Accordingly, since capital cannot feed its slave any longer, the personifications of its system (to use Marx's expression) try to resolve the problem by clawing back even the limited benefits conceded to labour in the form of the Welfare State—during the postwar period of undisturbed capital-expansion—by attacking and abolishing the Welfare State. Thus in the US, the unemployed are compelled to submit to the dictates of work-fare, if they want to receive any social benefits. And true to form, in Britain the same shift is being attempted from Welfare to work-fare by the government of a party which once considered itself socialist. Accordingly, when an eight column headline of a British liberal newspaper (which happens to be very friendly to the government of New Labour) announces: Jobless told: join Army or lose benefit,11 that headline gives a foretaste of the measures in store for the unemployed youth. This, again, underlines the fact, just like the other aspects of our problem mentioned so far, that the now fully accomplished globalization of unemployment and casualization cannot be redressed without the radical supersession of the capital system itself. Not so many years ago it was confidently anticipated that all known social evils, even in the most underdeveloped parts of the world, will be overcome by universal modernization, in conformity to the US model. Characteristically, however, we are now confronted by the diametrical opposite of the projected rosy picture. For the conditions once confined, in the tales of developmental theory and governmental wisdom, to the allegedly temporary difficulties of underdevelopment are now becoming clearly visible even in the capitalistically most developed countries.

2. The myth of flexibility: downward equalization of the differential rate of exploitation

On May 19, 1998 the French Parliament passed a law reducing the working week to 35 hours. Similar legislation is expected also in Italy in the not too distant future. It would be very naïve, however, to think that this is the end of the story. For in Paris the move was immediately described by many economists and business leaders as economic suicide,12 and in Italy even before any legislative move the leader of the Confederation of Italian Industry (Confindustria), Giorgio Fossa made absolutely clear the intention of his organization to nullify all such legislation.13 Moreover, Confindustria President Fossa (whose name in Italian means, most appropriately, grave) also unashamedly declared (as if it should not be obvious to everyone who knows his organization) that they intend to bury the law, if enacted in Parliament, with the help of a grand coalition which would include the supporters of even the extreme right-wing parties.14 And true to its customary cynicism, the London Economist pontificated about the proposed law like this:

So who really wants Lionel Jospin's 35-hour working week? Certainly not France's employers, who claim it will increase labour costs and reduce their competitiveness. Nor the taxpayer, who suspects he will have to pay higher taxes to finance the scheme. Nor, increasingly, the unions, who fear it will lead to lower wages and fewer workers' rights. Nor even the workers, most of whom expect to continue working as much as before, but with more awkward shifts and unsocial hours. Even the unemployed, the scheme's supposed beneficiaries, are wondering how many jobs, if any, it will actually create. … Mr Jospin finds himself saddled with a scheme not even he—it is whispered—believes in.15

Apparently, then, the law in question represented a mystery all round. This we were assured by The Economist on the authority of the mysterious well-informed whisperers.

Naturally, there are serious difficulties that must be faced by the labour movement in its struggle for a real reduction in the working week without loss of pay. But they are of a very different order as compared with the frightening tales devised by The Economist and by other spokesmen of the ruling order. The real obstacles confronting labour in the present and in the near future can be summed up with two words: flexibility and deregulation: two of the most cherished slogans of capital's personifications today in business as well as in politics. They are meant to sound very attractive and progressive. In truth, though, they encapsulate the most aggressive anti-labour aspirations and policies of neo-liberalism, claimed to be as commendable to every rational being as motherhood and apple-pie. For flexibility with regard to labour practices—to be facilitated and enforced through various kinds of deregulation—amounts in reality to the ruthless casualization of the labour force. It is often coupled with authoritarian anti-labour legislation—from Reagan's suppression of the US air controllers to Margaret Thatcher's long series of vicious anti-labour laws: characteristically retained by Tony Blair's New Labour government. And the same people who call the diffusion of the most precarious labour conditions of casualization universally beneficial flexibility also have the nerve to call the practice of authoritarian anti-labour legislation democracy.

Flexibility is expected to take care of the concession of 35 hours, if for the sake of political contingency it becomes unavoidable, as seems to be the case in France and Italy. Thus in France some ministers talk of making the labour market more flexible, notably by letting employers vary the working week in accordance with seasonal demand, so that the number of hours worked weekly would be calculated as an average over the year.16 The same ploy is expected to do the trick in Italy. At the time of its introduction Italy's Prime Minister Prodi—later rewarded with the Presidency of the European Commission—reassured his critics that appropriate flexibility should be able to counter the negative effects of the law.

The real concern of the personifications of capital is to promote labour flexibility and to fight in every possible way against rigid labour markets. Thus a prominent article in the Financial Times insists that In both Japan and Europe, companies are gearing up to shed jobs faster than rigid labour markets can create them, indicating approvingly that deregulation may force the pace and adding for the sake of propagandistic reassurance that Optimists believe deregulation will eventually lead to the creation of sufficient jobs in new markets to absorb much of the excess labour. But for this to happen, Japan will need the kind of labour mobility that operates in the US.17 (The story of Renault's takeover of Nissan, bringing with it the sacking of 30.000 Nissan workers, must please the advocates of such remedies, in that it shows that Japan is moving in the right direction.) Similarly, an IMF staff paper—enthusiastically reviewed by The Economist—asserts that studies suggest that in Europe real wages are only half as flexible as those in America, and that Europe's workers are much less likely to move around in search of work than American ones. This they say while blissfully forgetful of John Kenneth Galbraith's complaint many years earlier that workers in the US can only blame themselves for their unemployment because they refuse to move around as a result of their homing instinct, which ties them to the place of their upbringing. Nothing seems to change over decades either in diagnosis or in remedial wisdom. And to complete the priceless self-serving reasoning, the authors of the IMF staff paper present their far from reflexive but, rather, automatic Pavlovian reflex solution in the form of neoliberal capital's wishful should be projections:

Suppose, for instance, that a government cuts unemployment benefits. Workers now have a sharper incentive to seek work and so unemployment should fall. An increase in the number of job seekers will also put downward pressure on wages. Lower wage costs should, in turn, boost employment.18

Naturally, as a result of this wonderful shrinking of the wage bill, we shall live happily ever after. And on the other hand, if—despite the very real sacrifices of the workers (described in our quote with the words now have and will)—the fictitious expectations of should be do not materialize, that could in no way invalidate the shared theory of the IMF and The Economist. It would only reveal that the proverbial pigs of the well-known English adage stubbornly refuse to grow wings, to look like giant bumble-bees, in order to fly toward capital's wishfully projected optimistic future.

In the meantime, the real savagery of the system continues unabated, not only in ejecting more and more people from the labour process but, with a characteristic contradiction, also lengthening the time of work, wherever capital can get away with it. To mention a very important example, in Japan the government has recently introduced a parliamentary bill to raise the upper limits of the working day, from 9 hours to 10, and the work week, from 48 to 52 hours. Such a provision will allow a company to compel employees to work longer hours when the company is busy as long as the total hours worked in a year do not exceed the fixed limit,19 just like the flexibility merchants propose it in France, Italy and elsewhere. Moreover, the same bill also intends to extend so-called discretionary work schedules in order to allow a company to pay its white-collar workers for just 8-hours work even though they may have worked longer.20 Some frightening examples of the inhuman destructive effects of such discretionary work are reported from the fields where they are already operative, now to be extended. For instance a young computer programmer died of heavy overwork, according to the judgment of the Tokyo District Court. We read that his average annual working time was over 3,000 hours. In the three months just before his death, he worked 300 hours a month. At that time he was engaged in developing a computer software system for banks.21 Another young man who died of heart failure due to gross overwork, in the two weeks prior to his death worked on average 16 hours and 19 minutes a day.22 In the words of another japanese journal even today

employers impose strict quotas on workers, which means long working hours and unpaid work put upon the shoulders of the workers. … A train conductor, for example, working for East Japan Railways Co., Japan's biggest railroad company, actually performed his duties for 14 hours and 5 minutes while he was kept in the workplace for 24 hours and 13 minutes, and the company did not pay him for the rest of the 10 hours and 8 minutes, saying that these hours are neither working hours nor rest periods.23

Significantly, in the age of capital's structural crisis even this level of exploitation is not enough. It must be extended as far as the labour movement can put up with. In Japan the present bill before parliament is the biggest attack in the postwar period against workers' rights.24 No wonder, therefore, that some Trade Unions are envisaging for themselves a much more directly political role in the future, compared to their traditional line in the past. To quote Kanemichi Kumagai, secretary general of the Japanese National Confederation of Trade Unions: This year's spring struggle will not just follow what has been done in the past but will aim to change the trends of politics and the labour movement, including how Japan's policies and economy should be. For this we attach greater importance to achieving workers and trade unions taking actions to have influence over society.25

Japan is a particularly important example, because we are not talking about a so-called Third World country about which even the most callous and ruthlessly exploitative labour practices were always taken for granted as a matter of course. On the contrary, Japan represents the second most powerful economy in the world: a paradigm of capitalistic advancements. And now even in such a country unemployment is perilously rising and the conditions of work must be made worse than ever under the long period of postwar development and capital-expansion, including not only the great intensification of exploitative work-schedules in the name of flexibility, but also the—to many people quite incomprehensible—imperative of a longer working week.

At the roots of this baffling and in some ways self-contradictory advocacy of flexibility, coupled with rigid authoritarian labour legislation, we find the vitally important tendential law of the downward equalization of the differential rate of exploitation, which becomes sharply pronounced through capital's ever more destructive globalization in the period of the system's structural crisis. This is why I wrote in 1971 that

the working classes of some of the most developed post-industrial societies are getting a foretaste of the real viciousness of liberal capital. … Thus, the real nature of the capitalist production relations: the ruthless domination of labour by capital is becoming increasingly more evident as a global phenomenon. … The understanding of the development and self-reproduction of capital's mode of production is quite impossible without the concept of total social capital … Similarly, it is quite impossible to understand the manifold and thorny problems of nationally varying as well as socially stratified labour without constantly keeping in mind the necessary framework of a proper assessment, namely the irreconcilable antagonism between total social capital and the totality of labour.

This fundamental antagonism is inevitably modified in accordance with (1) the local socio-economic circumstances; (2) the respective positions of particular countries in the global framework of capital production; and (3) the relative maturity of the global socio-historical development. Accordingly, at different periods of time the system as a whole reveals the workings of a complex set of objective differences of interest on both sides of the social antagonism. The objective reality of different rates of exploitation—both within a given country and in the world system of capital—is as unquestionable as are the objective differences in the rates of profit at any particular time … All the same, the reality of the different rates of exploitation and profit does not alter the fundamental law itself: i.e., the growing equalization of the differential rates of exploitation as the global trend of development of world capital.

To be sure, this law of equalization is a long-term trend as far as the global system of capital is concerned. … Let it now suffice to stress that total social capital should not be confused with total national capital. When the latter is being affected by a relative weakening of its position within the global system, it will inevitably try to compensate for its losses by increasing its specific rate of exploitation over against the labour force under its direct control—or else its competitive position is further weakened within the global framework of total social capital. … there can be no way out, other than the intensification of the specific rates of exploitation, which can only lead, both locally and in global terms, to an explosive intensification of the fundamental social antagonism in the long run. Those who have been talking about the integration of the working class—depicting organized capitalism as a system which succeeded in radically mastering its social contradictions—have hopelessly misidentified the manipulative success of the differential rates of exploitation (which prevailed in the relatively disturbance-free historic phase of postwar reconstruction and expansion) as a basic structural remedy.26

As a necessary concomitant of the ongoing globalization of productive and distributive relations, the downward equalization of the differential rate of exploitation affects every single capitalistically advanced country, even the richest ones. There can be no more room for paternalistically manipulated labour relations, however traditional and deeply rooted they are supposed to be, nor indeed for permanently avoiding the severe negative impact of the ubiquitous structural crisis through relative trade and technological advantages. Indeed, as an Appeal by some distinguished intellectuals in an Italian newspaper stressed it, what makes the situation grave is that casualization and insecurity (la precarietà e l'insicurezza) grow everywhere in the world of labour: unsafeguarded and underpaid work is spreading like pools of oil, while even the most stable work undergoes a pressure toward an intensification without precedent of its performace, and toward full availability to a submission to the most diversified working hours.27

To put it in another way, here we have to face an extremely significant and far-reaching tendency: the return of absolute surplus-value, to an increasing extent, in the societies of advanced capitalism in the last few decades. Professor Augusto Graziani spoke most eloquently in February 1998, at the Convegno of Rifondazione in Milan dedicated to the issue of the 35 hours week, about the labour conditions of the Mezzogiorno in general and about the frightful exploitation of female labour in Calabria in particular. His intervention is most relevant to the question of absolute surplus-value in a capitalistically advanced country, like Italy, in that some of the highly exploitative labour practices can be identified also in the industrially most developed North of the country. In England, at the same time, a recent TV documentary illustrated the widespread diffusion of child labour, although it is clearly against the law. Naturally, the law is not in the least enforced. On the contrary, all kinds of phoney arguments are promoted in order to indirectly justify such unlawful pratices. Thus, business interests conduct a vociferous campaign against the minimum wage in general, with the excuse that its introduction would make the employment of young people much worse. Another way of manipulating the same issue, by the Confederation of British Industry, by the Institute of Directors, and by the various Think Tank organizations of business, is to press for the exemption of the young from the minimum wage legislation, or the concession of much lower minimum wage. Moreover, the worsening labour conditions of people of all ages in countless sweatshops—legal or illegal immigrants as well as a far from negligible portion of the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish labour force—speak loud enough about the reappearance of the drive for absolute surplus-value, as a most retrograde tendency in the 20th century development of capital, in one of the most privileged advanced capitalist countries. Needless to say, both the ruthless pursuit of absolute surplus-value in general and its particularly obnoxious manifestation in the form of child labour were always prominent (and, of course, so they remain today) in ‘Third World’ countries.

Paradoxically, the global crisis of capital-accumulation in the age of advanced globalization creates some major new difficulties, instead of solving the long contested iniquities of the system, as the optimistic spokesmen of unproblematical globalization want us to believe. For the margins of capital's productive viability are diminishing (hence the drive also for absolute surplus-value), despite all efforts of the capitalist states—individually or in concert, like the G7/G8 jamborees—to expand, or to keep steady at least, the system's productive margins. In actuality there can be only one way for attempting to enlarge the shrinking margins of capital-accumulation: at the expense of labour. This is a strategy actively promoted by the state—indeed, because of this need the interventionist role of the state has never been greater28 than in our own time, despite all neoliberal mythology to the contrary—and the strategy is objetively underpinned in our time by the tendency for the downward equalization of the differential rate of exploitation. In the end, however, the now pursued strategy is bound to fail, provided that the labour movement succeeds in radically rearticulating its own strategies and forms of organization, to be oriented toward the creation of a genuine mass movement, in order to face up to the historical challenge. For not even the most optimistic theorists of the IMF and of the other generously funded organs of capital-apologetics have managed to invent so far, nor are they likely to do so in the future, a device through which it would be possible to squeeze out the required ever-increasing purchasing power and the corresponding capital-accumulation from the ever-worsening economic conditions and casualized wage packets of the labour force.

3. From the tyranny of necessary labour time to emancipation through disposable time

How can labour—the structural antagonist of capital—counter the deteriorating trend inseparable from the narrowing margin of capital's productive viability?

This question takes us back to the third element of Rifondazione's quest for securing the 35 hours working week quoted at the beginning of this lecture: changing society (per cambiare la società). For today—as a result of capital's need to unceremoniously claw back29 even its past concessions, rather than consenting to new ones—it is quite impossible to realize even the most immediate and limited objectives of traditional trade unionism without embarking on the road that leads to a fundamental social transformation. The radical reconstitution of the socialist movement is a vitally important part of this process.30

Some of capital's more intelligent representatives, like Dean Witter—the chief economist and director of global economics for Morgan Stanley—are willing to confess that the ongoing trends are more problematical than usually depicted in the propaganda organs of neoliberalism. In an article published in the Sunday New York Times, entitled The Worker Backlash, he rejects the explanation that recent successes were the result of deregulation and increasing productivity. His own, far more conflict-conscious and less reassuring explanation is that there has been

a dramatic realignment of the nation's economic pie, with a much larger slice going to capital and a smaller one going to labour. Call it a labour-crunch recovery, one that flourished only because corporate America puts unrelenting pressure on its work force.31

In truth, not only corporate America puts unrelenting pressure on its work force but the personifications of capital everywhere do so. For the reformist achievements of the past were premissed on the continuing growth of the pie—which appeared under favourable economic conditions as capital's concessions, although there could never be a question of realigning the pie in favour of labour, since capital must always appropriate the lion's share for itself. Now, due to capital's structural crisis and to the narrowing margin of the system's productive viability, it becomes absolutely necessary to realign the nation's economic pie more than ever in capital's favour, so as to secure a labour-crunch recovery, thanks to the passivity and resignation of the labour force. But what happens when labour refuses to go along with such a ruthless realignment of the economic pie, because it can no longer afford to do so, as a result of the increasing hardship imposed by the traditional or newly invented forms of labour-crunch economy? The possibilities of realigning even a stationary pie, let alone a shrinking one, have their well definable limits. Not to forget the fact that the resignatory inactivity of the labour movement cannot be simply taken for granted forever in any country, as a matter of natural necessity. Not even in the capitalistically most advanced ones. No wonder, therefore, that today even the chief economist of Morgan Stanley has to speak about The Worker Backlash in the US, voicing his worries about a possible raw power struggle between capital and labour, and adding that gone are the days of a docile labour force that once acquiesced to slash-and-burn corporate restructuring.32

Naturally, from capital's standpoint there can be no answers to the question: what kind of alternative to the labour-crunch economy should be pursued in order to avoid the raw power struggle between capital and labour. Whatever his misgivings and worries might be, the chief economist of Morgan Stanley must continue to advise his firm about the best ways of exploiting the opportunities of globalized financial speculation, or else he will be quickly dispatched to more restful pastures with a forceful golden handshake. From the standpoint of capital there can be truly no alternative to crunching labour as much as possible—and more so in situations of emergency—, even if one perceives some of the dangers implicit in the pursued socioeconomic course. For in the end there is always the lure of authoritarian solutions, not only in the US client country of General Suharto, but also in the advanced capitalist democracies of the West which helped to put Suharto in power in the first place, supporting him in every possible way for 32 years, including his savage military repression of the people, and trying to save his wretched regime with massive IMF funds even in the last minute before his demise.

The general promise of solving the crying iniquities and contradictions of the system has been for a long time—and on the whole remains today —, that through the benefits of ever-increasing and globally integrated free trade the condition of workers will greatly improve all over the world, thanks to the return of the economy to a situation of undisturbed capital-expansion, free from the defects of the postwar decades which ended in inflation and stagnation. The actual signs and economic indicators, however, point in the opposite direction, a fact at times acknowledged even by mainstream economists who retain their belief in the insuperable virtues of the capital system. Thus, to quote an article reviewing a recent book by such an economist:

Rodrick argues that trade in general, not just low-wage imports, worsens income distribution. Increased international competition, he writes, translates into greater elasticity of the domestic demand for labour. In lay terms, this means that a worker is now competing with a much larger labour supply. As a result, a small shift in foreign workers' wages or in the global demand for a product or service can cause big shifts in the domestic demand for workers. Labour's greater vulnerability to market fluctuations undercuts its bargaining position vis-à-vis capital. Therefore, concludes Rodrik, The first-order effect of trade appears to have been a redistribution of the enterprise surplus toward employers rather than the enlargement of the surplus. The evidence, therefore, tells us that the critics of free trade have been right; trade is not enlarging wealth, but redistributing it upward.33

And yet, when it comes to the question of alternatives, we get from Rodrick only pious preaching. Thus, to continue our quote:

Rodrick's politics are at best naïve. He lectures labour and government to be more responsible, but has nothing to say to multinational corporate business. … Rodrick writes, Labour should advocate a global economy that carries a more human face, but he is silent about the fiercely organized efforts of multinational business and finance to prevent humane policies from even being considered by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and other rule setters for the global marketplace. This suggests a point of view that is, to put it mildly, out of touch with the realities of the global political economy.34

Indeed, adopting the standpoint of capital—not only in its blindly uncritical and most aggressive neoliberal form, but also in its wishfully liberal reformist varieties—has meant for a very long time losing touch with the realities of the global political economy.

The radical novelty of our time is that the capital system is no longer in a position of conceding to labour anything whatsoever, in contrast to the reformist acquisitions of the past. The depressing accommodation, and even wholesale capitulation, of some former working class parties to the demands of big business interests—for instance in Britain and in several European countries, but by no means in Europe alone —: a capitulation to the extent of not only retaining the authoritarian anti-labour legislation of the last few decades but also giving key cabinet posts in New Labour, in the Italian Democratic Left governments and elsewhere to prominent representatives of corporate capital, speak unequivocally on this score. (Lord Simon, Lord Sainsbury, Geoffrey Robinson, etc. in Britain, and similar figures in Germany, France and Italy.) This is why in the present historical period even the limited and modest objectives of labour—like the 35 hours working week—can only be realized by changing society, since objectively they contest the established socioeconomic and political order (in other words: the whole system of decision making) under which the nation's economic pie is produced and distributed. Under the conditions of capital's structural crisis this is the objectively unavoidable nature of the socioeconomic contestation, even if for the time being many representatives of labour do not conceptualize or articulate it in such terms. And this is also the reason why liberal and socialdemocratic reformism, which once upon a time had a powerful ally in capital's expansionary dynamism, is now condemned to the futility of pious preaching—from Professor John Kenneth Galbraith's sermons about The Culture of Contentment (quickly echoed, without the slightest remedial effect, by Bishops and Archbishops in the Church of England) to the notion of a labour and government-inspired global economy with a human face quoted a minute ago. A preaching to which the personifications of capital cannot possibly listen.

The demand for a significant reduction of the working week has a fundamental strategic importance. Not only because the underlying issue profoundly affects and therefore directly concerns every single worker, manual and intellectual alike, whatever might be the colour of their collars. Equally, because the issue of facing up to this challenge is not going to fade away. On the contrary, it is growing in importance with the passing of every day, and the imperative to do something meaningful about it cannot be legislated out of existence by capital's parliamentary personifications in the capitalistically advanced countries, nor indeed repressed by naked force on the periphery of capital's global order. In other words, this is a vital strategic demand for labour because it is non-negotiable: i.e., it cannot be integrated into the manipulated pseudo-concessions of the existing order. For it directly concerns the question of control—an alternative system of social metabolic control—to which capital is and must be inimically opposed.

Naturally, the 35 hours working week—even if it could be genuinely conceded and not deviously nullified in many different ways, as it is cynically planned or practised already—could not resolve the monumental and ever-increasing, as well as socioeconomically grave, unemployment problem. Thus the question that legitimately arises: why 35 and not 25 or 20 hours per week, which would make a major difference in this respect? That is the question that takes us to the heart of the matter.

The radical incompatibilities between the existing social order and the one in which human beings are in control of their life-activity, including their liberated time, to be set free by a significant reduction of the working week, was graphically and painfully illustrated in Britain through the destruction of the mining industry. In 1984 the British coal miners waged a heroic struggle, not for money but in defence of their jobs: a one year long strike that was defeated through the combined efforts of the government of Mrs Thatcher—who called the miners the enemy within—and Neal Kinnock's Labour Party which stabbed them in the back. As a result, the miners' workforce, which at the time was over 150.000, has been decimated, to the present figure of less than 10.000, and the towns and villages of many mining communities have been turned into the wasteland of dehumanized unemployment. At the time of the miners' strike the coal mines were still nationalized, which meant being run with the most ruthless capitalist criteria of efficiency and authoritarian control by the National Coal Board, becoming subsequently privatized in a fraction of their original size. What was highly characteristic of the Coal Board's way of dealing with the problem of greater efficiency, while talking about the absolute need for rationalizing the work requirements of the coal industry, was the fact that the state-run Board imposed on the miners an almost insane seven days work schedule at the same time when it was savagely cutting the labour force under its control. For capital is quite incapable of human considerations. It knows only one way of managing work-time: by maximally exploiting the necessary labour time of the workforce in employment, totally ignoring the available disposable time in society at large, because it cannot squeeze profit out of it.

This is what sets insurmountable limits to capital in its way of addressing the unemployment problem. There is something rather paradoxical, indeed profoundly contradictory about this. For capital's productive system de facto creates superfluous time in society as a whole, on an ever-increasing scale. Yet it cannot conceivably acknowledge the de jure existence (i.e., the legitimacy) of such socially produced surplus-time as the potentially most creative disposable time we all have, which could be used in our society for the satisfaction of so much of the now cruelly denied human needs, from education and health service requirements to the elimination of famine and malnutrition all over the world. On the contrary, capital must assume a negative/destructive/dehumanizing attitude towards it. Indeed, capital must callously disregard the fact that the concept of superfluous labour, with its superfluous time, in reality refers to living human beings and possessors of socially useful—even if capitalistically redundant or inapplicable—productive capacities.

The concept of disposable time, taken in its positive and liberating sense, as an aspiration of socialists, appeared well before Marx, in an anonymous pamphlet entitled The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties, published in London almost 50 years before Marx's Capital, in 1821. In some passages quoted by Marx this pamphlet offered a remarkable dialectical grasp of both the nature of the capitalistic productive process and—by focusing attention on the vitally important categories of disposable time, surplus labour, and shortened working day—the possibilities of escaping from its contradictions. To quote:

Wealth is disposable time and nothing more. … If the whole labour of a country were sufficient only to raise the support of the whole population, there would be no surplus labour, consquently nothing that can be allowed to accumulate as capital. … Truly wealthy a nation, if there is no interest or if the working day is 6 hours rather than 12.35

We are slowly catching up with demanding, as our ancestors did in 1821, the 6 hours working day, but we are still very far from organizing society on the basis of the immeasurably greater wealth-producing potential of disposable time. Without the latter, there can be no question of emancipating the working individuals from the tyranny of fetishistic determinations and crying iniquities. The realization of even our limited objectives will require mass mobilization36 of the employed and unemployed people, guided by solidarity with the problems we are all bound to share, if not today then tomorrow. The strategic longer term perspective, which makes feasible also the realization of the immediate demands, is inseparable from our awareness of the viability and indeed the ultimate necessity of adopting the mode of controlling our social metabolic reproduction on the basis of disposable time. This is the objective to which our resources need to be dedicated if we care about the unemployment problem. Only a radical socialist mass movement can adopt the strategic alternative of regulating social metabolic reproduction—an absolute must for the future—on the basis of disposable time. For due to the insurmountable constraints and contradictions of the capital system, any attempt at introducing disposable time as the regulator of social and economic interchanges—which would have to mean putting at the disposal of the individuals great amounts of free time, liberated through the reduction of work-time well beyond the limits of even a 20 hours working week—would act as social dynamite, blowing the established reproductive order sky high. For capital is totally incompatible with free time autonomously and meaningfully utilized by the freely associated social individuals.


1 Underground Economy, The Nation, January 12/19, 1998, p. 3.

2 Japan Press Weekly, 16 May 1998.

3 István Mészáros, The Necessity of Social Control, Isaac Deutscher Memorial Lecture, delivered at the London School of Economics and Political Science on 26 January 1971. Merlin Press, London, 1971, pp. 54-55; reprinted in Mészáros, Beyond Capital, Merlin Press, London 1995 and Monthly Review Press, New York 1996. Quotation is from pp.889-890.

4 While the total number of unemployed persons registered with employment exchanges stood at 336 million in 1993, the number of employed persons in the same year according to the Planning Commission stood at only 307.6 million, which means that the number of registered unemployed persons is higher than the number of persons employed. And the rate of percentage increase of employment is almost negligible. Sukomal Sen, Working Class of India: History of the Emergence and Movement 1830-1990. With an Overview up to 1995, K.P. Bagchi & Co., Calcutta 1997, p. 554.

5 Waterloo in Asia?, The Nation, January 12/19, 1998, p. 4.

US interests are cynically pursued and imposed wherever the opportunity permits. Thus American officials, who effectively vetoed the creation of an Asian Regional Fund independent of the IMF, and therefore of Washington, have also made it known—most recently in the case of Korea—that no US direct aid will be forthcoming until the ailing countries acquiesce in IMF demands. So far, Thai authorities have agreed to remove all limits on foreign ownership of financial firms and are pushing ahead with legislation to allow foreigners to own land, long a taboo. Even before it sought help from the IMF, Jakarta abolished its restrictions on foreign ownership of publicly traded stock, a move replicated by Seoul when it granted foreign investors access to the $64 billion long-term, guaranteed corporate bond market, access they had been seeking for years. Walden Bello, The End of the Asian Miracle, The Nation, January 12/19, 1998, p. 19.

6 IMF congratulations, to be sure, mean very little, if anything, even in their own terms of reference. Characteristically, when the Thai economy was headed for trouble, the IMF was still praising the government's ‘consistent record of sound macroeconomic management policies’. Walden Bello, The End of the Asian Miracle, loc. cit., p. 16. Similarly, in the few months since the IMF rescued the South Korean economy, unemployment has actually doubled in the country.

See also an insightful article by János Jemnitz, A review of Hungarian politics 1994-1997, Contemporary Politics, Vol. 3, No. 4, 1997, pp. 401-406.

7 See Gabriel Kolko's fine book, Vietnam: Anatomy of a Peace, Routledge, London and New York, 1997. See also Nhu T. Le's passionate rejoinder in his review of Kolko's book in The Nation, Screaming Souls, 3 November 1997.

8 Anthony Kuhn, 268 million Chinese will be out of jobs in a decade, The Sunday Times, 21 August 1994.

9 See Lord Beveridge's book of the same title and his important role in the establishment of the British Welfare State.

10 Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1971, p. 44. See Marshall Berman's deeply appreciative article on the 150th Anniversary of the Manifesto, Unchained Melody, The Nation, 11 May 1998, pp. 11-16.

11 Jobless told: join Army or lose benefit by Stephen Castle (Political Editor), Independent on Sunday, 10 May 1998. Another headline on the same page reports on reactions to the miserable level at which the minimum wage has been introduced by the British New Labour government under the title: Union fury as Labour sets minimum wage at £3.60.

12 Susan Bell, Paris pass law on 35-hour week, The Times, 20 May 1998.

13 Neither resigned nor softened on the question of 35 hours, the industrialists' President is more determined than ever to promote a repealing referendum. (Né rassegnato, né ammorbidito sul tema delle 35 ore, il presidente degli industriali è più deciso che mai a promuovere un referendum abrogativo.) Vittorio Sivo, Referendum sulle 35 ore, La Repubblica, 22 April 1998.

14 Ibid.

15 The working week: Fewer hours, more jobs?, The Economist, 4 April 1998, p. 50.

16 Ibid., p.51.

17 Michiyo Nakamoto, Revolution coming, ready or not, Financial Times, 24 October 1997. See in the same issue of the Financial Times an article by John Plender, When capital collides with labour, written in the same spirit.

18 Policy Complementation: The Case for Fundamental Labour Market Reform, by David Coe and Dennis Snower. IMF Staff Paper Volume 44, No. 1, 1997. Reviewed in The Economist, 15 November 1997, p. 118. Tellingly, the title of the review article is All or nothing: Piecemeal labour-market reforms will not cure Europe's unemployment problem. Governments need to go the whole way.

19 Japan Press Weekly, 14 February 1998, p. 25. In another issue of Japan Press Weekly we read: The main objectives of the bill are to increase the application of discretionary work schedules, to ease restrictions on the existing system of varied (flexible) working hours and to make short-term employment contracts legal. 18 April 1998.

20 Japan Press Weekly, 14 February 1998.

21 Japan Press Weekly, 28 March 1998.

22 Japan Press Weekly, 4 April 1998.

23 Akira Inukai, Attack against workers' rights, Dateline Tokyo, No. 58, April 1998, p.3.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid., p. 4.

26 The Necessity of Social Control, pp. 56-59, and Beyond Capital, 890-892.

27 il lavoro sottotutelato e sottopagato si allarga a macchia d'olio, mentre anche il lavoro più stabile subisce la pressione verso una intensificazione senza precedenti della sua prestazione lavorativa e verso una piena disponibilità alla sottomissione ai più diversificati tempi di lavoro. In: Trentacinque ore della nostra vita, an Appeal of intellectuals signed by Mario Agostinelli, Pierpaolo Baretta, Heinz Birnbaum, Carla Casalini, Marcello Cini, Giorgio Cremaschi, Pietro Ingrao, Oskar Negt, Paolo Nerozzi, Valentino Parlato, Marco Revelli, Rossana Rossanda, Claudio Sabattini and Arno Teutsch; Il Manifesto, 13 February 1998, p. 5.

28 The interventionist role of the state is in evidence both on the economic and on the political plane. In the economic domain the funds generously dished out to major capitalist enterprises are measured in hundreds of millions of pounds. Thus British Aerospace, for instance, is going to receive nearly £600 millions for one of its ongoing ventures, in addition to countless millions semi-fraudulently obtained from the state in the not too distant past, also on an occasion when the company was pretending to put on sound economic footing the now again bankrupt Rover enterprise. As to the latter, the massive funds needed to save Rover today are expected again to be provided by the state—and no one seems to hail right now the miraculous virtues of private enterprise—while leaving the profits, of course, to the capitalist part of the so-called Private Public Partnerships so much favoured by New Labour. Equally if not more important is the role of state intervention on behalf of capital on the political plane. For the capital system badly needs the authoritarian anti-labour legislation—obligingly introduced by Conservative and socialdemocratic governments alike (indeed, most tellingly about the gravity of the system's structural crisis, even by some governments presided over by former communist parties, as in Italy)—in order to maintain its neo-liberal rule over society at the present stage of historical development.

29 As Marshall Berman had put it in his article quoted in note 10, crass cruelty calls itself liberalism (we are kicking you and your kids off welfare for your own good) and you are laid off or fired—or deskilled, outsourced, downsized. (It is fascinating how many of these crushing words are quite new.) The Nation, 11 May 1998, p. 16.

30 See a powerful chapter on the challenges facing the labour movement: Beyond Labour and Leisure, in Daniel Singer's book, Whose Millennium?, published by Monthly Review Press, New York, Spring 1999.

31 Dean Witter, The Worker Backlash, Sunday New York Times, quoted in a letter sent to the readers and supporters of Monthly Review by its Editors in October 1997.

32 Ibid.

33 Jeff Faux, Hedging the neoliberal bet, (a review of Dani Rodrick's book, Has Globalizaion Gone Too Far?, Institute for Internaional Economics, Washington D.C., 1997), in Dissent, Fall 1997, p. 120.

34 Ibid.

35 Quoted in Marx's Grundrisse, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1973, p. 397.

36 The Appeal quoted in Note 27 rightly speaks of the need to promote a mass mobilization in favour of the 35 hours week, to affect both the world of work as that of politics, and culture as much as the world of associations. (promuovere una mobilitazione di massa a favore delle 35 ore che tocchi il mondo del lavoro cosi come quello della politica, quello della cultura come quello delle associazioni.)