The dead end of wage labour
Occupy Detroit rally, Grand Circus Park, October 14, 2011. By Stiofan 1919 (Flickr).
It is a central irony of the history of the Left that it so frequently comes to defend the very exploitive and unjust institutions that were its sworn enemies from the outset. One of these is certainly the sovereign nation state, the strengthening of which became the fulcrum of first Stalinist and then social democratic politics. The state and its bureaucracy — the critique of which was very much part of the early Left’s inspiration (anarchist and Marxist) — is now seen as an essential bulwark against capitalist globalization. The consequences of this statist orientation are that the Left has not infrequently had to surrender the critique of a complacent and self-serving political class and its national security and other bureaucracies to a rhetorical if hypocritical libertarianism of the Right. With a few exceptions, plans to decentralize and democratize power are pushed off into some distant future.
A parallel case is that of the system of wage labour. The fight against wage “slavery” (the word says it all) has been a core inspiration of critiques of capitalism from the earliest days of that system. For Marx the critique of wage labour was essential to his labour theory of value and the notion of surplus value derived from the labour of workers above and beyond the wages they were paid. For the pioneers of early socialism, getting rid of the wage system was a first principle. Another less discussed part of their critique of wage labour was that its authoritarian core — the boss/worker relationship — undermined the basic tenets of a democratic society. If a vast majority of people spend most of their waking lives under the direction of external management — autocratic habits and discontents will deform all social life. There is much evidence from contemporary psychology and the study of alienation that a significant truth resides here. Whether under capitalism or state socialism, the wage relationship saps the autonomy and self-determination of workers needed to underpin a truly democratic society. This view, too, was pretty much a pillar of the critiques of the pioneers who envisioned a world beyond capitalism. But gradually the economism of a more vulgar Marxism displaced the belief that it was core social relationships of hierarchy and the wage relationship which needed to be transformed in order to move beyond capitalism.
As socialism became a serious political contender — either in its parliamentary or Bolshevik form — wage labour came to be accepted as the only way the wealth of society could be effectively distributed. When pressed, some still expressed a belief that this was a transitional phase to a remote and rarely invoked future in which the wage relationship would be transcended. The focus of the Left shifted to the quantity of wages paid (did these amount to a fair living wage?) and other conditions under which wage labour was carried out — work safety, holidays, pensions and other fringe benefits. The idea that the labour market (or its centralized planning equivalent) was a questionable way of deciding thorny questions of income distribution ceased to be considered a point for serious discussion.
Socialists and the labour movement instead advocated a macroeconomic position in favour of full employment, reasoning that this would leave the working class (their prime constituency) in the best position to occupy decent jobs at good wages in a situation of high labour demand. Full employment was only imaginable in the context of robust economic growth, where labour and everything else was in high demand in a rapid “flow through” economy. The golden age of this model dates from the 1950s up into the 1970s, a span of time that witnessed a relative fairness in the division of economic surplus between capital and labour. This all came to a crashing end in the 1980s with the neoliberal counter-revolution spearheaded by Thatcher and Reagan, aided by capital’s increasing globalized flexibility. The two together succeeded in making good wage settlements a piece of nostalgia. Instead we entered an era of labour “flexibility” (read discipline) marked by precarious employment, austerity and shocking levels of inequality.
Fast forward to the year 2016. To socialists who take humanity’s ecological crisis seriously — and it is hard to take seriously those who don’t — the growth that underpinned the full employment dream is fast becoming a grave threat to the very existence of our species, in addition to making the planet entirely inhospitable to a good many other species. One can see the flickering ironies in the flames that are consuming the tar sands capital of Fort McMurray — that ultimate job magnet drawing workers from Eastern Canada to Somalia and Sudan — destroyed by the very climate degradation its dirty oil helped produce. Only the rankest cowardice prevents our political class (Elizabeth May excepted) from drawing the obvious connections.
Fact is we already have too many jobs and use too much wage labour performing tasks in our speed-up economy whose only real purpose is to generate profit and as a side effect perhaps create more jobs. But this kind of growth is something we can no longer afford. There is a credible case being made by ecological economists that what we actually need is a kind of degrowth to regain a sense of ecological balance as we face a series of cascading environmental crises — climate degradation, resource depletion, deterioration of the quality of soil, air and water, a garbage explosion and widespread chemical poisoning.
Capital “off the leash”
A few on the Left still yearn to return to “the golden age” of the 1950s and 1960s and the era of decent jobs where our exploitation is regulated by consensus agreement of capital and labour. But there will be no going back. Capital is “off the leash” and will not likely be reined in by calls for fairness and ecological sanity based on contradictory notions of full employment and “green growth.” The Centre-Left politics that underpinned the old consensus has now largely capitulated to one form or another of neoliberalism. Precarious labour has long been at the centre of the political economy of the Global South. With the aid of globalization and the hollowing out of manufacturing work, precarity has migrated north for good. Most of the new job growth is part-time and/or low wage.
The main ideological tool in capital’s arsenal remains the promise of more wage labour that never seems to arrive, at least in the quantity and quality promised. Whether it’s large transnational corporations or the business-oriented think tanks that dominate the policy superstructure, there is an almost constant drumbeat of job blackmail. It is holy writ that the business class must get its way in enacting this particular tax policy or that particular free trade deal or pushing through the latest pipeline or mining project. Otherwise we will all suffer. They just won’t invest, and the jobless and under-employed can blame the politicians who failed to provide that holiest of all grails: the “sound investment climate.”
This endless braying for jobs by everyone from chambers of commerce to trade unionists traps us in the logic of capital forever. It is frequently accompanied by the glorification of any work at all as a morally upright end in itself no matter its ecological and social impact. Jobs are synonymous with wage labour in most conventional understandings and it is assumed that without the direction of some external management we would all lay about doing nothing— or worse, after all “idle hands do the devil’s work,” as the expression goes. Wage labour is taken as the natural condition through we distribute the wealth of society based on the status and bargaining power attached to the job in question. Those without jobs end up both poor and unworthy.
Of course the corporate and related oligarchies, who are quick to champion a life of compulsory labour for the rest of us, now tend to draw their income from securitized wealth such as stock portfolios, derivatives, bonds and trust funds. These have little to do with how the owners of significant capital pass their waking hours. While they are deserving of our animus for their self-satisfied hypocrisy, we could also view them as pioneers in destroying the centrality of the wage system as the main means for distributing wealth. The massive personal wealth that the one per cent has managed to accumulate (up to one-third of global wealth is currently nestled beyond the reach of tax authorities) proves there is certainly enough pie to go around without us expanding it even further.
An adequate basic income for all is, in this sense, a good starting point for the Left to renew its assault on compulsory wage labour. The organization of work could be freed up to take on more cooperative, decentralized and democratic forms in which workers could decide for themselves what work is desired and useful. Many seeds of this kind of work organization already exist. Such reforms should be welcomed insofar as they would significantly weaken the power corporate job blackmailers currently wield over society.