Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Elephant's Room

by the Sandwichman

My colleague, Peter Dorman wonders:
And where is the left? They rail against the bailout and the evils of finance capital, but when it comes time for them to put forward a constructive, functional alternative they change the subject.
To answer Peter's question requires a brief detour to consider the images of the elephant in the room, the emperor's new clothes and the three monkeys: see-no-evil, hear-no-evil and speak-no-evil. In short, what is not said is no coincidence. There is a conspiracy of silence. One has to learn to listen very carefully for the conspicuous absences.

Here is what the elephant looks like (I paraphrase from an abstract of Moishe Postone's Time, Labor and Social Domination): the core of the capitalist system is an impersonal form of social domination generated by labor itself and not simply by market mechanisms and private property. The industrial production process itself is an expression of this social domination and therefore cannot be a means of human emancipation.

Social domination in capitalism is something that largely occurs impersonally in the labor process. One sells one's time to make a living. That is to say, the employee accepts payment in return for agreeing to do what he or she is told to do during those hours of the day that one is employed.

Reducing the hours of work simply reduces the proportion of time during which individuals are under this impersonal form of domination. However, substantially reducing the hours of work not only reduces this period of domination proportionately, it also diminishes it's importance and displaces it from the center of life. That is what Herbert Marcuse meant when he said, "Civilization has to defend itself against the specter of a world which could be free. If society cannot use its growing productivity for reducing repression (because such usage would upset the status quo), productivity must be turned against the individuals; it becomes itself an instrument of universal control."

Has anyone other than the Sandwichman noticed that, aside from the Sandwichman's unrelenting obsession with the issue, NO ONE talks about reducing the hours of work as part of a policy response to the financial crisis. IT'S NOT IN THE CONVERSATION, FOLKS! It's what we've somehow tacitly agreed not to talk about. Why? Because it's the elephant in the room.

It's the unspeakable solution to "the unsolved riddle of social justice." It's the unmentionable "ultimate solution" to the problem of full employment. It's the unutterable "preliminary condition without which all further attempts at improvement and emancipation must prove abortive."

Rather than just passing on to some other topic without acknowledging what I'm trying to say here, can someone please explain to me why I'm wrong? Is there no elephant in the room? Is the emperor clothed in robes woven from silver and gold thread?


Anonymous said...

The "left" as well as the "right" are utterly silent about the repression implicit in industrial production because the system is ingrained into the very foundations of political polarity. All the arguments are about how to divide the spoils.

"Economics" is generally taken to mean the theory of industrial production and finance. If you're looking to escape from social domination, then you're not playing the game, you've gone off the board. You risk being called Utopian. You're not being a "serious economist." But I think you may be right.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

Yes. Shorter hours in the paid workforce. The trouble for me is that this solution is so obvious that it's hardly worth commenting on.

The elephant in the room looks to be the re-distribution of land and other resources that such a cultural shift necessitates.

Sandwichman said...

The trouble for me is that this solution is so obvious that it's hardly worth commenting on.

Maybe its obvious if you're an Einstein. Not so much if you're a Mankiw or a Rockefeller.

From Walter Isaacson's biography of Alfred Einstein:

"They also discussed economics and social justice in light of the Great Depression. Einstein suggested that working hours be shortened so that, at least in his understanding of economics, more people would have a chance to
be employed...

"Does not such an idea," Rockefeller asked, "impose an unwarranted restriction upon individual freedom?"

Greg Mankiw: "I just finished the biography of Einstein by Walter Isaacson. It's terrific. (The book includes a bit on Einstein's economic views, which seem about as well thought out as my views on quantum mechanics.)"

Anonymous said...

I think that when the average person, and maybe the average economist, consider the idea of reducing the hours of work they assume that the result will be to have suffered a reduction in their earnings. It is not clear from the argument, as it has been presented,
how remuneration of the workers fits in to the concept. Equal pay for fewer hours of work? Workers often feel in competition with one another for both recognition of work done, productivity, and the potential increase in earnings from that increased productivity.
This feeling of competition between workers is promoted by employers. The opposite, a sense of cooperation and team work, seems often spoken of but in conflict with the intention of employers to foster productive competition between workers.

Unions had often been the safe guard against employer contradictions concerning the value inherent in worker cooperation and cohesiveness. Employers often seem conflicted in this area. What would lead to increased productivity, competition or cooperation? Unless the focus is on cooperation it is unlikely that workers will cooperate with the concept of reducing the hours of work. It goes against their sense of competition and their assumption, that is likely to be a false assumption, of rewards to be won by competing.

Sandwichman said...

Jack: "I think that when the average person, and maybe the average economist, consider the idea of reducing the hours of work they assume that the result will be to have suffered a reduction in their earnings..."

Jack, that is exactly why I have serialized "The Economic and Social Importance of the Eight-Hour Movement" by George Gunton. There are points in Gunton's argument that I will eventually take issue with as divergent from Ira Steward's thinking. But as to the relationship between shorter hours and higher wages, I think Gunton articulates the basic argument pretty thoroughly. Here's how Ira Steward's 1865 pamphlet, "A Reduction of Hours, An Increase of Wages," began:

"'Well,' says a workingman, 'I should certainly be very glad to work less hours, but I can scarcely earn enough by working ten to make myself and family comfortable.'

"Sir, as strange as it may seem to you at first blush, it is a fact that your wages will never be permanently increased until the hours of labor are reduced. Have you never observed that those who work the hardest and longest are paid the least, especially if the employment is very disagreeable, while those whose employment is more agreeable usually receive more, and many who do nothing receive more than either?"

The argument is important enough, novel enough and well-formed enough to merit some effort on the part of the reader to follow. In a few days, I will be posting a point-form summary of the whole argument with links back to the expanded discussion.

When you say, "It is not clear from the argument, as it has been presented, how remuneration of the workers fits in to the concept." are you referring specifically to the Gunton pamphlet I have been posting, which explicitly addresses "how remuneration fits in to the concept," or are you expecting the explanation to be self-evident? Because if it's the latter, I would simply suggest that you read the pamphlet I've been posting in installments, which goes through the connection step-by-step. If it's the former, could you be more specific about which of the steps you don't follow or find objectionable?

Anonymous said...

It's not a matter of objectibg to the concept. It is more the matter of understanding. On a systemic level it is obvious that fewer hours per worker would result in more employment generally which should then result in higher wages. Also, it seems reasonable to assume that with increased leisure and the likelihood of increased wages that there would be an increase in the demand for goods. That in turn, one mayn assume, would lead to an increase in the value of labor.

Given the historical resistance to reducing hours of work, which may be based on false assumptions, how do you suggest that the obstacles to the reductions be over come? What is likely to be a systemic improvement that benefits many is not likely to be an obvious improvement in the eyes of the individual workers for the reasons I suggested in my prior comment.

Sandwichman said...


I am still not sure whether you are talking in generalities or specifically about the Steward/Gunton hypothesis. You don't make any clear reference to the latter. The latter is based on a (sociological)"standard of living" argument that is very, very different from the standard "economic" argument. You seem to be going back to a standard economic frame of reference and wanting the explanation to somehow "fit" with those preconceptions. The argument about higher wages is not a difficult one but it is a very different one. It requires a Copernican shift in frame of reference. If you're not making that imaginative shift (even provisionally) you're not going to get it.

Jack said...

I'm not seeing the argument as one of sociological vs economic theoretical competition. For example, I'm not certain why the explanations advanced by Steward/Gunton, as I understand them from your posts, have to be seen as evolving from either field. What is economics if not the sociology of exchange?

What I am suggesting is not that the theory regarding the result of reducing the hours of work is wrong, but that it's effect is not direct enough to be understood by workers. It may have long term effect, but unfortunately workers tend to focus on the short term. They're circumstances generally dictate such a perspective. They can't see the beneficial effect of reducing their own hours, though they may very well understand that they are working too hard and enjoying it less. It's something of a Catch 22 conundrum. The worker would like to work less, but fears the loss of income if work hours are reduced. Nothing in his frame of reference will allow him to expect an increased standard of living as a result of reduced hours of work.

Employers seem no better informed of the potential of the approach. How else can the concept of over-time be explained? Employers pay a higher hourly rate for hours worked that are likely to be the least productive in order to avoid increasing the size of the work force. It would seem that just the opposite would be dictated by the theory. There is a long way to go before such a theory, regardless of its correctness, becomes understood and might actually take hold in the work place.

Sandwichman said...

Are you saying, Jack, that "workers" are too stupid to comprehend anything other than directly observable effects?

The Big Mook said...

Jack wrote: "Nothing in his frame of reference will allow him to expect an increased standard of living as a result of reduced hours of work."

How about using the frame of reference of taxation. Explain to the public that one's labor output is the tangible that they are really paying their taxes with.
Explain to them that they are paying a 100% tax at 40 hours per week.

They are paying this tax of course to their government, but also to their mortgage bank or landlord, their grocer, their insurer, retailers etc.

My theory is they are paying for the benefits of civilization, industrialization, society, as well as its boondoggles.

In recent years we have seen people get more agitated about the the prospect of having their money tax lowered by successive Republican regimes. Perhaps if it can be reference framed that lowering the hours in the standard work week is the universal across the board way to fairly lower taxes, then even Republicans can be brought on board.

If the standard week is lowered say by 20% from 40 hours to 32 hours, it will be lowered the same amount for the highest paid and the lowest paid workers. No progressivity to complain about on the right. No regressivity to complain about on the left.

How about a real 20% tax cut (hours) across the board for everyone from CEO down to the security guards and janitors.

Simple people as well Norquistas seem to have become very comfortable with the idea that lower money taxes results in better government. If the reference of labor is framed as a tax then maybe by the same logic (Less is better for society) they can also come to the belief that a lower output of hours is likely to result in a better quality of life for themselves and a higher standard of living for their nation.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

My husband took a year off from his paid work to labour beside the builder to construct our house. In this case, the fewer paid hours of work that year had an ongoing financial benefit for our family through:

(i) lower taxes paid that year;

(ii) lower costs associated with working (no need to purchase lunch in town or travel to work);

(iii) No requirement to direct a percentage of that year's pay into forced retirement savings (only to find it frittered away in a global financial crash years before exiting the paid workforce);

(iv) the subsequent house mortgage was lower by tens of thousands of dollars so there was less principal to repay on the loan;

(v) the lower principal on the loan meant we also paid far less interest;

(vi) Hubbie developed a successful working relationship with the builder that led to cooperative sharing of resources such as skill-sharing, loans of the nail gun and pneumatic operator, information sharing about cheaper sources of building supplies etc.

(vii) the skills acquired that year were used to save money in the following years.

Robert said...

In addition to the benefits to workers of having more of their lives to devote to their own uses, it bears mentioning that reduced work time would result in less pressure on politicians to "create jobs" or "preserve jobs" by funding weapons programs, enabling inefficient transportation or engaging in resource wars.

Anonymous said...

I'm not suggesting any such thing in regards to the general intellectual level of workers. I am sayiing that workers' focus of attention is often on the short term need. Working for workman's wages often has that effect. Living from paycheck to paycheck often sets one's focus on the near term rather than on the future better. If workers were better organized so that they had a more collective voice, that strengthened vice might help workers in general to look for a better quality of life. Now, I'm afraid, to often the worker is in the position of being happy to have work and having more work seems to be an advantage in spite of its actual disadvantage on a broader social scale. In effect, the issue is certainly complex. I think that reducing hours of work while at the same time maintaining standard of living reqyuires an organized labor movement that responds to work issues from a position of strength. Too many other economic factors currently put workers at a serious disadvantage.

I don't happen to ascribe to the idea that employers are socially conscious enough to look beyond their own perceptions of the relationship between hours of work and quality of life. They seem not even able to understand that less work hours would likely mean better quality work. As I said above, employers are willilg to pay a premium for extra hours of work when they could simply increase the size of their work force. The result would be less hourly wages for a fresher supply of labor. Capitalists can be very short sighted when it comes to the issue of the cost of labor.

Did your spouse reduce his hours of work, or did he only deversify his work? It sounds like he worked as many hours, but in a new setting. Did the contractor hire one less worker as a result? Did the contractor take into account your husband's work when computing his charges for the work being done? At very least your husband displaced a worker. Or, piossibly, reduced the hours of work of the contractor and his employees by what ever amount his new work measured. Is there any way in which your husband's efforts could be described as supplemental to the contracting work and, therefore, not having any unintended consequence for the contractor's workers?

Unknown said...

My husband took the full year off from his part-time teaching position to help build our house.

That meant that the high-school would have had to employ someone else to replace him. So, in effect, he did not 'take work away' from anyone.

The one builder that worked alongside of my husband was being paid by the hour for his work and he came onsite whenever it fitted in with his other commitments. Sometimes it was a week or two before he returned to continue constructing our house. My husband could use this 'slack' time to continue building (eg using the nail gun to build the stud frame construction, lay floor boards etc).

In the area in which we live it is often very difficult to find a worker who is prepared to travel the 39 kilometres to our bush block, especially on a regular basis.

The long-term outcome of this was that the financial industry received less custom and we have relatively more money to spend than many of our peers in this recession because we were able to clear our housing debt. There's also a greater sense of security in the knowledge that the skills so acquired are retained and can be used again at any time and be taught to others now who may need to learn them to counter the rising cost of living.

Jack said...

corowa/Brenda?? What's up with the confusing attribution?

I wasn't so much remarking on the effect of taking time from one activity to devote to another and what the potential effects might be. The comment was meant more to draw attention to the complexity of work hours distributed across a set of workers. Even a small set, your local community, or smaller still, the half dozen or so that were involved with your spouse's change of activity and its reverberations. The primary point being the complexity of the issue of work hours and the effect of the distribution of those hours.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

Jack, I accidentally posted under a family member's id. 'Corowa' is the name of the rural town I was born in in southern NSW.

'Free time' away from indiscriminate and excessive production may be seen to be an essential move toward sustainability once the environment, a healthy society and people is eventually valued within the economic system. I don't think the issue is that complex, really.