Against labour, against capital: The terror of labour by Norbert Trenkle

As a compliment to Robert Kurz’s reflections on capitalism and labour, we share the work of another member of the Krisis Group, this time Norbert Trenkle and an essay entitled the Terror of labour.  (The english language translation that we publish below and the original german text can be found here).

 For a person socialised in the Western World labour is simply a self-evident thing; self-evident to that extent that he/she would not even give a second thought to what labour actually is. If one asked somebody, the reply would probably be that work is nothing but an appropriate physical and mental activity hence an everlasting necessity for the human existence. Maybe, he/she goes so far to say that labour is the very essence of humanity. Through labour mankind becomes different from other mammals because it is labour, which liberates men from nature. An essay with the title „Anteil der Arbeit an der Menschwerdung der Affen“ (app. The essential role of laobur in the transformation process from the Ape to Human Being), written by Friedrich Engels at the end of the 19th century, nowadays would probably thought to be quite pompous. However, the very phrasing is still able to pinpoint the prevailing state of awareness. It is quite revealing, that German Trade Unions deem this particular pamphlet of Engels‘ to be one of the few that still deserves it to be used in their training courses for members.

In fact, to deny that many things have to be done in order to create the means of subsistence and – moreover – to put life in a happier frame of conditions would be absurd. If mankind wants to get fed it has to grow grain, vegetables, and fruits and it has to breed cattle. It goes without saying that land has to be cultivated, houses and stables are to be built etc. beforehand. This entails the necessity to learn how these activities are to be carried out, who does what and when, and how to distribute the production. Some things never change, even if, by proper application of knowledge and technology, it will be less time consuming to achieve such goals. But why is it then that in the bourgeois society all these different activities are subsumed to the one and only abstraction „labour“?

In the first place one could claim that it is just a mere thought abstraction, simplifying the understanding of reality, just like we can say „tree“ if we actually mean oak, beech, or birch. But there is a substantial difference. The abstraction „labourdoes not refer to the activity as such but rather to the social context in which it takes form. What is deemed to be „labour is not based on material and sensual criteria, i.e. what movements of the hands are necessary, what kind of products are to be made, and what is their specific benefit for men. The only decisive factor is, whether an activity materialises in the abstract-social context of the production of commodities and some wage is awarded for the carrying out. That is why a particular activity – depending on the context – sometimes is deemed to be labour and sometimes not. Nobody would deny the difference between the painting of one’s own sitting room and the same procedure carried out as an employee of a house painter company. In both cases the activity is exactly the same. But in the first case it is carried out to satisfy a certain sensual need (i.e. to get a more beautiful sitting room), in the second case the activity is put into service for a perfectly non-sensual duress: the social-totalitarian constraint to earn money. In view of this constraint all activities become fully equal, irrespective of their actual content. The only thing that counts is the „marketability“. By this an activity becomes labour.

In the so-called dark medieval times nobody would have hit upon the absurd idea to subsume the activities of a – let’s says – blacksmith, woman farmer, knight, or nun – to a single abstract category. That only makes sense if men/women are forced to sell their life energy in the form of labour power for an extrinsic purpose that means nothing to them: the blind end in itself of capital accumulation. In Marxism, labour has always figured as the opposite of capital. To a certain degree this is true, but only in so far as labour represents one of the two poles of interest in a common reference system, that is the capitalistic exchange of commodities. If labour is the only way to earn the means of subsistence, men/women become indifferent to the concrete content of their activity to the same extent as the capitalist – who is going to employ them – is indifferent to the purpose of his/her production (except for profit accumulation). Whether the workers/employees produce pesticides, construct motorways, expel beggars from pedestrian precincts, or construct weaponry, a job is a job and must be done. That does not preclude personal preferences and ethic scruples, but the same applies to the capitalist. There are always people who are not willing to produce weaponry, but one will find thousands of others who are ready to earn their money this way with pleasure. The multitude of options, so often invoked by media nowadays, turns out to be nothing but a limited number of tick options in a multiple-choice procedure within the boundaries of the fetish system of labour and capital.

Today, most people are no longer aware of the coercive character of work. That shows to what extent this external constraint is already internalised. But one should never forget that – in Europe – it took three hundred years of force – in fact a war against the majority of the population – to „persuade“ people to „deliver“ their life energy to the factories on a regular basis. Time-delayed, the same bloody procedure restarted in some of the colonies and at the periphery of Europe (i.e. Russia and the Balkans). However, it never had the profound effect of internalisation as it had in Central Europe. In Western Civilisation labour became the „second nature“ of mankind and people are no longer able even to imagine another form of affluence creation. As an appalling indicator for this general awareness may serve the phenomenon that almost every activity (including non-productive activities) are perceived as work today. We do housework, homework, brainwork, in German any dealing with the beloved partner is a „relationship-work“, if somebody dies, we have to do „grieving-work“ and at night we are compelled to do our „dreaming-work“. The aforesaid depicts how deep the social dominant structure of labour is already embedded in the psyche of the individual. And this is probably the reason why, just now, in the crises of the labour society, ordinary people (i.e. the subjects formed by capitalism) turn out to be the main obstacle for the abolishment of the prevailing fetish system. They do not want to stop working, even if it is obvious meanwhile that capital accumulation verges on its inherent limits. The Titanic must not sink; the passengers want the music to keep playing.

The craziness about the current fundamental crisis is that it does not have its origin in a general lack of means, but is rather due to the opposite pole – an enormous increase in productivity. Under the regime of a different social order the surplus could easily be utilised to provide for mankind as a whole to a high quality degree. Furthermore, immense portions of time could be made available for leisure and creative-playful activities of all kind. Still, under the tyranny of the triad – commodity-production, abstract/alienated labour, capital accumulation as an end in itself -, the level of productivity, as currently achieved, will inevitably lead to an even greater number of people being ousted from the production process and thereby cut off from the very basic means of subsistence. Under these circumstances, any well-meant intention of redistribution is condemned to fail because the only criterion for participation in the social product is and remains to be labour employed. The proponents of a base-income can not avoid this fact because such ideas require the skimming off of surplus value as generated in the utilisation process of living labour. In order not to stall the engine of the „beautiful machine“, a monetary redistribution of such kind can only result in alms allocation well below the current social welfare standard. The same applies to the schemes for work flexibility and/or reduced hours which are just to reintegrate a few of the „ousted“ back into the system, most probably on an only temporary basis, and, for sure, at the expense of a considerably lower wage.

The whole dilemma must be attributed to the fundamental and inherently insoluble contradiction of the modern production system, which, in order to achieve its senseless and maniac object of capital accumulation, depends on the mass employment of living labour. On the one hand, capital is nothing but the fetishist representation of dead labour, i.e. labour that was once performed in the course of the utilisation process. On the other hand, competition (i.e. the process by which the available surplus as a whole is allocated to the various single capitals) is the driving force behind the permanent increase in economic productivity, which results in superfluous labour power – thereby undermining its very own economic basis. Until the 70s of last century, capitalism was able to defuse this basic contradiction by territorial expansion and by the opening-up of labour-intensive branches (i.e. car production, production of household appliances, etc). But with the end of Fordism, this dilatory strategy has come to a halt. Microelectronics and information technology bring about a massive meltdown of necessary living labour at the core sectors of the utilisation process without any compensation fields in sight. The allegedly new and promising fields of employment, notably the so-called service industry, turn out to be nothing but a „chimera“ if one has a closer look.

Should there really be an economic expansion in the service industry – not only a fake one based on statistical tricks -, this can, unfortunately, not serve as an indicator for an – even – temporary solution of the capitalist dilemma. First of all, the increase in jobs is – partly directly, partly indirectly – based on an enormously inflated credit and speculation market that has become the engine of the alleged „world-boom“. In fact, contrary to widespread public opinion, the exodus of capital into the speculation market is not an obstacle to investment in production, but rather a welcome alternative for capital, which can not be reinvested in any profitable „real economy“. The basic capital valorisation crisis can not be settled this way, even if the problem can be postponed to a „some time“ future. Of course, the longer the dilatory tactics last, entailing a move-away of „speculation economy“ from the „real economy“, the more serious will be the repercussions on „real“ capital accumulation, national budgets and social security systems when the crash is due (the Asian financial crisis was just a bit of a foretaste).

However, as long as the show goes on, speculative capital gains contribute to the preservation of jobs and may even create some new jobs. This does not only apply to the public sector, which is on the drip of credit banks come what may, but also – more and more – to the private sector of employment. Speculative gains are partially spent on consumers‘ non-durables, on services and the acquiring of real estate, which triggers off some kind of „job-machine“. Especially in the USA, where small shareholders have invested in shares over the last decade, speculative gains have been the decisive factor of consuming. The small surplus of the US budget in 1999 was – above all – due to the skimming off of speculative gains. As the former governor of the Fed, Lawrence Lindsey, publicly calculated, the Clinton administration is relying on $ 225 billion additional revenue until the year 2002 (Wirtschaftwoche of 13.11.1997). „The manna from heaven“, as he put it ironically; though it is a very profane heaven that will collapse sooner or later.

Secondly, it is well known that most of the „new jobs“, especially in the third sector, are only competitive because wages are extremely low, industrial law protection was cut back and wage incidentals were reduced (i.e., the risk was transferred to the employees). That means that the lack in economic productivity of such jobs is plastered over by extreme exploitation of labour power and the transfer of social cost to the public purse, even if the offset is only a superficial one in terms of monetary balance. Once again, the basic contradiction as induced by the crisis can not be resolved this way. From the standpoint of capital utilisation it is not labour power as such that counts, but rather – whether at all – how much value labour power represents. The criterion is the necessary social labour hour spent on the production of a certain product in line with the currently valid social average level of productivity. The average magnitude of value though is determined by the productive core sectors on international level. Low-cost labour can not evade this situation and will always be exposed to a fierce downward competition.

500 working hours spent by a cutter in a backyard sweatshop, may produce a fewer number of pieces and thereby a lower value than 1 working hour spent by a hyper-modern robot. By analogy, the same applies to the wide-ranging field of commercial services, which produce no value at all but remain systemically indispensable because commodities must be marketed. The entire field of street trading, which makes up a large part of the informal sector in Third World countries, has to take it that it is to be measured against hyper-rationalised supermarket chains, which effect a higher commodity turnover with less labour employed. In the Third-World-development theory of the 1980s this phenomenon was called „obscured unemployment“ because, from the political economic point of view, superfluous labour power is spent. It was thought to be a transition phenomenon of Third World countries, which was to disappear in the capitalistic modernisation process. Yet, the modernisation process failed and the phenomenon is still there. Moreover, according to the cynicism of neo-liberalism, now it is thought to be market economy at its best if people in general, including those based in the centres of the Western World, are forced to sell their labour power „under-productively“, i.e. on miserable terms. The most important thing is that they work at all!

The terrorism of labour can not work out in the end. But as a strategy of crisis management, it is alarmingly successful at present. Similar to what has happened at the very beginning of the capitalistic production system (i.e. some 300 years ago), once again compulsory work is frankly propagated. This time it is not meant to drum factory discipline into the peoples‘ head and to recruit them for the „armies of labour“, but is only meant as a disciplinary measure to tame the population. In the old days, the poorhouses, prisons, and „homes“ for the mentally sick were utilised to serve as a model of a new form of social reproduction thereby provoking the stiff resistance of the majority of the people. Nowadays, the neo-liberals, social democrats, and right-wingers of all kind are advocating compulsory work for the only purpose to maintain a system passé. The worst is that it seems to meet a – meanwhile – deeply rooted craving of the masses. Where there is protest at all, people stand up for jobs – not against it. More often the subliminal rage is expressed through racism, anti-Semitism, all kinds of social Darwinism, and irrationality amok runs.

While the crisis is moving on, people cling desperately to the masochistic illusion that they may still be allowed to sell their life energy on miserable terms in the future. If we can not manage to destroy this fatal fixation and to make mankind aware that the potential of wealth creation, as achieved in the past, has to be liberated from the fetishist forms of capital and labour, the crises of the labour society will finally annihilate the social and natural basis of human existence.

March 1998

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