Paul Burkett: The Significance of Social Restraints on Capitalist Exploitation

The Significance of Social Restraints on Capitalist Exploitation (from Marx and Nature: a Red and Green Perspective by Paul Burkett)

One additional dimension of Marx’s work-time analysis has great significance for ecological politics. It involves Marx’s suggestion that the social protection of human laboring capacity from capital’s “unnatural extension of the working-day” must “take on the form of a class struggle, and thereby call forth the intervention of the state power.” Marx’s reasoning is as follows:
As to the limitation of the working day, in England, as in all other countries, it has never been settled except by legislative interference. Without the working men’s continuous pressure from without that interference would never have taken place. But at all events, the result was not to be attained by private settlement between the working men and the capitalists. This very necessity of general political action affords the proof that in its merely economic action capital is the stronger side.
There are several interrelated arguments in this well-packed statement.To begin with, Marx asserts that effective regulation of work-time cannot be achieved privately. Here and elsewhere, Marx treats a sustainable working- day (one consistent with a day-to-day rejuvenation of the natural force of labor power) as a kind of public good. This jibes with Marx’s recognition of labor power as a limited common pool resource from the standpoint of society’s reproduction and development. Even neoclassical economics recognizes that public goods may be undervalued by unregulated markets, due to the forces of competition and the “free rider” problem. However, Marx’s analysis of this public good problem is informed by the class relations of capitalism. As such, it recognizes that the degree of undervaluation of labor power’s daily reinvigoration (i.e., of the worker’s free time) depends on the relative bargaining power of capital and labor as a whole. Here, Marx suggests that without “legislative interference” in response to “general political action” and “continuous pressure” by workers, the overall balance of class forces—as conditioned by capital’s control over the means of employment and the reproduction of a reserve army of unemployed (“its merely economic action”)—will tend to favor capital over labor, the result being “an unlimited and reckless extension of the working-day.”

Marx’s case for the necessity of general working-class pressure and state action to impose safeguards against excessive work-time is thus based on the combined importance of the class-biased economic dynamics of capitalism and the social character of labor power as natural wealth. This is the holistic reasoning behind Marx’s otherwise inexplicable suggestion that “the measureless demands of capital could never be held in check by the isolated efforts of the worker,” so that “the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working class. Once one recognizes that extra-human natural conditions and workers’ free time both have important public good and common pool resource characteristics linked to their special roles in the daily rejuvenation and long-run reproduction of labor power, the relevance of Marx’s reasoning for environmental regulation clearly emerges.

Up until this point, it has been presumed that capital’s interests lie in the prolongation of work-time to the greatest possible extent. But Marx also recognizes that from a long-term perspective, there are certain ways in which limitations on work-time appear to be rational even for capital. Aside from the long-run threat it poses to capital’s absolute use-value requirement (exploitable labor power), unlimited work-time may place upward pressure on wage costs by augmenting workers’ subsistence consumption requirements. Beyond a certain boundary, the extension of work-time...
...shortens the length of life of the individual labourer, and therefore the duration of his labour-power, [so that] the forces used up have to be replaced at a more rapid rate and the sum of the expenses for the reproduction of labour-power will be greater; just as in a machine the part of its value to be reproduced every day is greater the more rapidly the machine is worn out. It would seem therefore that the interest of capital points in the direction of a normal working-day.
Moreover, the negative “external costs” of unregulated work-time may afflict capitalists and workers alike. Marx mentions how, “as a result of . . . excesses” in work-time, “there broke out epidemics whose devastating effects were equally threatening to capitalists and workers,” so that “the state . . . was compelled to introduce normal days in the factories.” Legal caps on work-time may also “free the capitalist from some of the brutality natural to a man who is a mere embodiment of capital, and . . . give him time for a little ‘culture’.” The question thus arises as to why Marx places so much stress on working-class pressure as a condition for effective regulation of work-time. After all, one could agree, based on “public good” and “externality” arguments, that “it is only government compulsion that can limit labour time,” while disagreeing with Marx’s view that “the rebellion of the working class itself ” is “the main driving force” in the imposition of such compulsion. Indeed, Marx himself notes that British work-time legislation was “made by a state . . . ruled by capitalist and landlord”. Whence the need for and the significance of explicit working-class pressure?

Marx’s answer to this apparent puzzle seems to be twofold. First, this is one case where the individual and collective interests of workers correspond more effectively to the interests of the whole present and future society than do the long-term or the short-term interests of capital. The underlying basis of workers’ general political action to limit work-time is the close affinity between, on the one hand, workers’ interest in their own sustainable and healthy reproduction and, on the other hand, the historical progress of society in terms of the development and fulfillment of human needs and capabilities. By contrast, even from the long-run perspective, capital as such (money seeking more money) requires restraints on worktime solely to ensure a supply of exploitable labor power, with no necessary concern for the present and future wealth of society holistically considered. Clearly, the working-class standpoint is better situated to take the leading ideological position in any “reaction on the part of society, the very sources of whose life are menaced” by competing capitalists’ “immoderate lengthening of the working-day.”

The second key aspect here is that explicit social regulation of worktime contradicts the basic principles of capitalist competition. Such regulation represents an encroachment of collective social planning into territory previously ruled by capital and its market forces. Although work-time legislation may be supported by individual socially enlightened capitalists, capital as a whole organized politically at the level of the state will generally not restrict the sphere of capitalist and market oriented decision-making in favor of explicit social decision-making on behalf of labor unless pressured to do so by the working-class. In this sense, work-time legislation is a great victory not only for workers under capitalism but also for socialism. As Marx indicates, with reference to the English Ten Hours Bill,
besides its practical import, there was something else to exalt the marvelous success of this working men’s measure. . . .This struggle about the legal restriction of the hours of labour raged the more fiercely since, apart from frightened avarice, it told indeed upon the great contest between the blind rule of the supply and demand laws which form the political economy of the middle class, and social production controlled by social foresight, which forms the political economy of the working class. Hence the Ten Hours Bill was not only a great practical success; it was the victory of a principle; it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class. 
So concludes Marx’s analysis of how capital’s tendency “to go beyond the natural limits of labour time . . . forcibly compels even the society which rests on capitalist production . . . to restrict the normal working day”. The significance of this analysis for ecological politics should be clear. Just as a rational regulation of work-time contradicts the principles of free capitalist competition and requires “social production controlled by social foresight,” so people can only “rationally regulate their interchange with nature” insofar as their actions are not determined by the imperatives of competitive capital accumulation. At the same time, Marx’s analysis suggests that one need not wait until “after the revolution” for working-class struggle to achieve important historical progress in terms of the sustainability of production.

For Marx, work-time legislation (and, by extension, meaningful environmental legislation) does not manifest the “modernization” or “humanization” of capitalism as such. Rather, it represents an anti-capitalist development within capitalism—one prefiguring a new system of socially planned production in which the needs of the producers and their communities within and across generations take precedence over the needs of capital, with its profit-driven supply and demand forces. Marx does insist, however, that significant progress toward a sustainable utilization of society’s life-forces and the use of such progress as a launching pad for further struggles depend on the incursion of explicit social decision-making into areas previously reserved for capital and the market. This imperative for “general political action” stems from the fact that capital requires the forces of human and extra-human nature only as conditions of monetary accumulation, whereas workers, like society as a whole, obviously have a more holistic interest in natural conditions as conditions of present and future human development.

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