Stairway to Serfdom

Stairway to Serfdom

I posted the above chart four days ago in “From Social Distance to Social Justice” to illustrate Arthur Dahlberg’s argument about the eventual consequences of a declining labor share of income. Dahlberg was inspired by Stephen Leacock’s The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice and both Leacock and Dahlberg were influenced by Thorsten Veblen.

The chart also illuminates arguments made by Moishe Postone about Marx’s theory of capitalist production. I happen to agree substantially with Postone’s interpretation of Marx even though I find his presentation repetitive and difficult to follow. That is, I think I agree with what I think he was trying to say in Time, Labor and Social Domination.

What the chart shows is that in spite of a more than threefold increase in productivity over roughly the last half-century, the per capita hours of work increased in a series of steps with each successive business cycle culminating in a higher level of hours per capita. “Because total value created is a function only of abstract labor time expenditure.” Postone wrote, “increased productivity yields a greater amount of material wealth but results only in short-term increases in value yielded per unit time.” Postone later remarks that one consequence of this dynamic “is the accelerating destruction of the natural environment.”

The object of capitalist production is not the material wealth that it yields in increasing quantities. The object is the expanded accumulation of capital through the production of surplus value. At one point Postone asserts that “labor is actually the object of production” and elsewhere that “value operates as a socially constituted form of abstract domination.” This may sound like “the man who mistook his wife for a hat” but I think it is absolutely correct and extremely important, if difficult to parse.

Let me try. Value is abstract, as is surplus value. Material wealth is concrete but it doesn’t increase proportionately to value. Labor is also concrete but, in contrast to material wealth, increases in abstract labor time are, ultimately, proportionate to increases in value. Social domination is what ties labor to abstract labor time.

The difficulty here is that Postone — and Marx — are referring to a contradictory process. Literally. Explicitly. “Capital itself is the moving contradiction,” Marx wrote in the Grundrisse, “[in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.” Here we have an explanation for the oscillations in the red line in the chart above. Productivity gains propel the economic recovery, which enlists more labor and more labor time, which creates a drag on productivity. Statistically, this is a tautology since hours of work is the denominator in the productivity equation.

Why is each successive peak higher than the last one through five business cycles? I suspect that this is not a characteristic feature of “market capitalism” but is an unintended consequence of managed capital. One could call it “inflation” if that term hadn’t already been thoroughly colonized by the apologists for capital. “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon,” proclaimed Milton Friedman, thereby foreclosing once and for all consideration of any alternative analysis.

Hours inflation is a type of inflation — just as asset bubble inflation is a type of inflation. But pay no attention to the man behind the screen. “Inflation is a process by which the presumed nexus between signifier (monetary value) and signified (material commodity), representation and ‘reality,’ becomes strained or even broken altogether,” wrote Sarah L. Lincoln. There is that word, “value” again and it is instructive to shuffle through the phases: value, surplus value, labor time, abstract domination.

The presumed nexus between monetary value and the material commodity is that a certain quantity of labor time was expended in production of the quantity. But this is a presumption that becomes more and more strained with the development of modern industry. “On the one side, then, it [capital] calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it,” Marx wrote in the Grundriss. “On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value.”

Clearly, in Marx’s analysis labor time is not the power behind the creation of wealth. Instead it is the yardstick, imposed by capital, for measuring the worth of all that creation. Why? To maintain the already created value as value. The danger is that properly acknowledging the powers of science, nature, social combination and social intercourse in the creation of wealth would devalue the massively inflated assets, which presumably entitle the capitalist to a large and increasing share of material wealth. Those assets become “stranded assets,” which is a nice way of saying liabilities.

Marx’s argument here is that the more labor time is rendered superfluous by modern industry, the more desperately does capital cling to it as the measure of value. Capital “diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary.” The relentless ascent, decade after decade, of hours worked per capita documents the increasing superfluity of that labor time. The less labor time is needed the more of it is needed! This is the very definition of contradiction.

In the last four weeks, 22 million Americans filed new claims for unemployment insurance. What will it take to “get them back to work”? Those 22 million — along with another 22 or 44 million — were already redundant before the coronavirus lockdowns were imposed. What if creating those 40 or 60 million jobs requires destroying 30 to 50 trillion dollars worth of imaginary asset value? Anybody wanna buy a barrel of Western Canada Select? A bargain at minus fifteen cents a barrel.