Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Note on the Abolition of Labor

This is inspired by Edward's comment.

For my part, I think the abolition of labor has to be addressed at several levels.

Firstly, the abolition of labor is the abolition of labor as a determinate social form, that is, as the constitutive social relation for humanity.  To say that human beings will always engage in labor as a metabolic interchange between humanity and nature is not the same as saying that human beings will always engage in labor as the socially determinate relation between human beings.  The former is the general, trans-historical, aspect of labor, and the latter is Labor as socially determinate form of domination constitutive of capital.

Secondly, Marx rightly discusses the difference between the realm of necessity, of the performance of labor to reproduce human existence in whatever social form we find ourselves in, and the realm of freedom, which is the realm of freely disposed time.  In pre-capitalist class societies, as far as I know without exception, the realm of necessity was the realm of unfree labor, of slaves, serfs, etc. in their own minimal reproduction as most of humanity engaged largely in subsistence labor and as the portion of humanity engaged in surplus-wealth producing labor (only 33% of the ancient Greek population were slaves, but they produced the majority of surplus-wealth that did not come from the plundering of other peoples; most free Greeks were subsistence farmers who had a nominal freedom.)  The realm of freedom was explicitly the realm of not-working and the claim of the ruling classes was always a claim to free time, to unproductive activity: philosophy, politics, war, art, etc.

Pre-capitalist societies were generally the explicit, overt, direct relegation of the producers to the realm of necessity and of the ruling classes to the realm of freedom via the direct, personal domination of the laboring classes.  Under capital, the realm of necessity is conflated with the realm of freedom because the relations of domination are indirect and impersonal, even with a capitalist class because each and all must obey the logic of capital, the imperatives of the market and all come to freely sell their wares.  "Arbeit Macht Frei" was not just what the Nazis put above the entrance to Auschwitz, it is the mantra of capitalism and of much of the Left from Social Democracy to Leninism to Stalinism to Maoism to Trotskyism to Council Communism.

Communism is nothing if it is not the entering of all of humanity into the realm of freedom, of freely disposed time to do or not do as one pleases.  This does not eliminate the realm of necessity, but reduces it to a subordinate, non-determinate position in the relation of between it and freedom.  This is impossible if the majority of time of a human life are spent doing work for an alien power, as a slave, a serf, a worker, a taxed peasant, regardless of whether that alien power is a lord or a master or the abstraction of capital.  Only when necessary labor by human beings is reduced to a minimum of human time and the work freely chosen engages the mental, physical, and emotional faculties of a person can we reasonably imagine actual freedom for all of humanity, as opposed to the abstract freedom of exchange and democracy.  It is also the unity in difference of the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom, rather than merely the victory of one aspect over the other (the fantasy of Utopian Socialism) or the enforced domination of one over the other (societie of direct domination) or the collapsing of one into the other (capitalism).

Thirdly, Jehu's point that "the higher stage of communism is exactly the point where there is no longer any connection at all between the activity of the worker and her needs" hits the nail on the head.  For this to be the case, we cannot speak of human beings defined by their labor or even labor being life's prime want.  This does not mean that people will not choose to pursue medicine or the study of nature and the cosmos or aesthetic production and do it for many hours a day.  Rather, it means that even if an individual stopped and chose to lay on their back in the grass and listen to the wind in the trees, they would not cease to have their needs met.  I would say, to be picky, that at this point there is no such thing as a worker, rather, the tighter formulation would be to say that "there is no longer any connection at all between the activity of an individual and her needs".

I rain into some rather interesting discussions of a book I am reading that is germane to this conversation, called Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams.  The book is itself quite interesting, alongside Paul Mason's book Postcapitalism.

I recommend the discussions on this at the following links as follow-up to the question of a world without work:


  1. Hey Chris,

    Thank you for the prompt response! I think you summed it up in a very clear fashion.

    It does seem like on some level, it's hard to grapple with the notion of reducing or eliminating labor. We have notions like "hard work" that are often used to motivate or validate people. Or that people have to validate their exist or "leave their mark".

  2. We live in a weird time. On the one hand, capital has gotten further in the abolition of labor than I think Marx or any one else ever expected without being abolished. On the other hand, the wage-form has achieved an unprecedented universality intensively and extensively across the globe, leading to the global entrepreneurialization of the self. It is this latter that drives forward the valorization of "hard work" and simultaneously resentment towards those who are not "working hard", even though everyone is a victim of the hustle these days.

    If you eliminated the jobs that are the performance of personal services in a waged form (value-producing, but with extremely low quantities of surplus-value production per labor hour), eliminated the work that is only performed by people instead of humans because of the incredibly low wages in some countries that makes it more "efficient" from a capitalistic perspective than automating it, and took advantage of a host of technologies and innovations not merely at a big, global level, but at the level of local efficiencies, working more than a few hours a day is already absurd. and yet, if you live in the U.S., you know that many workers cannot imagine what to do with their time other than work. That is part of the struggle against the fetishization of "hard work".

    1. Chris,

      Would it be alright to get your email address in regards to these kinds of questions? Just more of a consistent way to keep contact.


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