A 2013 interview with Anselm Jappe in which he discusses the crisis of the society of labor, the logic of the commodity and exchange value and its disastrous consequences for an increasingly larger part of humanity, and perspectives for positive social change.
What will we do if the system can no longer create jobs? An interview with Anselm Jappe – Alexandra Prado Coelho
According to the philosopher Anselm Jappe, who has come to Lisbon to give a talk at the Teatro Maria Matos, in capitalism we are defined by our relation to labor. But the system is a “house of cards that is beginning to collapse”. It is time to rethink the concept of labor.
Capitalism distorts the idea of labor, disconnecting it from society’s real needs. We work at an increasingly faster pace merely to feed the logic of the system. But the latter seems to have entered a self-destructive stage because, with the exclusion of ever more people from the labor market, there are increasingly more people who are also excluded from consumption, says the philosopher Anselm Jappe, who was born in 1962 in Germany and now lives in France and Italy.
Jappe—who has three books that have been published in Portugal by Antigona press, including The Adventures of the Commodity (2006)—is giving a talk next Tuesday, the 23rd, at the Teatro Maria Matos, as part of the Transition Lecture Series. In his presentation (which will be delivered in Portuguese) moderated by António Guerreiro, Jappe will explain why we must rethink the concept of labor.
Alexandra Prado Coelho (AC): Your talk is entitled, "After the End of Labor: Is Humanity Becoming Superfluous?" Is the end of labor on our horizon?
Anselm Jappe (AJ): This claim would have amazed most people a few decades ago, because modern society is by definition a society of labor, in which always more people are put to work. According to this logic, however, labor is not something that has always existed.
AC: How long has it existed?
AJ: In Antiquity, there was no word for “labor” that would have embraced all forms of activity. It would have been impossible to imagine, for example, that the activity of a priest, a peasant, or a slave would have all been considered to be labor. Each activity served to realize an end. What mattered was this end—to have things to eat, to perform services for God, to undertake a military campaign, etc. What mattered was the satisfaction of a need and labor was the means to obtain that satisfaction.
With industrial society, on the other hand, we work as much as possible because it is labor that gives us money, and all the satisfactions of needs only come later. It is always necessary to work more in order to increase production. Work is an expenditure of energy that is measured by time. If I make a table or teach a college class, these are two completely different things, but I can always say that, “I worked one hour”. This time is expressed in a quantity of money.
AC: Which is valued differently, in the case of the labor of a university professor or a blue collar worker.
AJ: One hour of labor by a specialized worker can be worth more than one hour of labor by a non-specialized worker. It is a quantitative difference, but it has nothing to do with the content of what is produced.
We have an industrial society that is based on the use of machines and technology, which serve to economize on labor. It would be logical that we should have to work less because we can have all of our needs satisfied with a minimum amount of activity. But what takes place is just the opposite. Today we work much more than ever before. All you need to do is to compare the pace of our lives and that of our grandparents.
Today, everything revolves around work. We can be workers or unemployed, but we are always defined by our relation to labor.
In the capitalist system, value is not given by the usefulness of things, but by the labor that was necessary for their manufacture. The more we work to make something, the more value is conferred upon the product. The wealth of the capitalist comes from making us work more than is necessary, which Marx called surplus-value.
On the other hand, capitalism makes labor the fuel of social life. In all previous societies, this social life was based things like the direct rule of an individual, ideas of honor or religious ideas. In modern society we are all defined by labor.
In the last few decades, however, labor is beginning to run out of steam. There is a constantly diminishing amount of work due to technological development. This could be good news—we could work less and have all we need. But just the opposite has taken place. People are losing their jobs, there is no real redistribution of activity, and those who are unemployed are also removed from consumption.
AC: Which is contrary to the logic of the system.
AJ: Yes, those who can no longer work can no longer have money with which to consume. This is a kind of self-abolition of capitalism. In a factory, a shirt is manufactured in five minutes, whereas previously an artisan required an hour to make a shirt. This means that there is less labor invested in a shirt. In a rational society, we would say, “we are going to make the same shirt as before, but we shall make it by working only five minutes”. But it is exactly the opposite that happens: the worker is compelled to work more, to make more shirts, and then it is necessary to sell them. If more and more is produced, it is in order to counteract the fact that in each commodity less labor is invested and therefore the surplus-value is correspondingly reduced.
AC: But it is not always the case that by replacing humans by machines, value is withdrawn from the final product. If I want to buy a cup of coffee, it could either be served to me by a person or I could get it from a machine, but I still pay the same amount of money for it.
AJ: And that is precisely where the contradiction lies—if a business replaces a worker with a machine, it will make more money because the machine costs less to operate. People pay the same amount for their coffee as before, but the business spends less money on wages. But if every business does the same thing, it is the system itself that is the loser because there will be less utilization of labor power. The businesses are acting contrary to the interest of the system. It has been that way from the beginning.
AC: But nonetheless, machines make more free time for us to devote to other activities, eventually leading to greater usefulness.
AJ: That would be the ideal situation. But in the capitalist system, not all activities have exchange value, only those that can reproduce the invested capital. What we do for ourselves or our friends is not considered to be labor because it does not enter into the logic of the market. An activity that is useful for us or for others is very different from what is considered to be labor in the capitalist system. We can say about a couple, that he works in a factory, and that is labor, but the mother does not work, she is busy with the children and taking care of her elderly father-in-law. The definition of labor has nothing to do with the content of the activity.
AC: Are productive activities necessarily linked to the production of commodities?
AJ: No, but they have to enter into the cycle in which capital is reproduced. Take a factory, for instance: the worker makes a car, the car is sold on the market and this represents profit for the capitalist, and his labor is therefore productive labor. It is also necessary to clean the factory, but those who perform this service do not produce any profit, their work is only a necessary expense, which makes no contribution to profit, but quite the contrary.
AC: We have tended to view capitalism as a system that is nourished by some and imposed on others. But that is not the way you see it.
AJ: Capitalism has an anonymous, impersonal logic. The capitalists only execute the laws of a system that is much bigger than they are. There is, of course, individual responsibility, but this is less important than the logic of the system as a whole. Today there is once again a marked tendency to think that the problem is that there is a group of people who are too greedy, the speculators, bankers, etc., who go too far and put the whole system, which is based on honest workers, at risk.
There is a tendency towards personalizing capitalism, a tendency that is also often found in movements like the Indignados or Occupy Wall Street. This could prove to be dangerous because it is somewhat reminiscent of what took place in the 1930s with the fascist system, in which social hatred was turned against a group of people, in that case, against Jewish financiers.
The real problem is that there is no distribution of activities in accordance with social needs, which is what a reasonable society would do, but there is simply this unqualified need to work to produce things that we have no use for. This is something that even the left largely ignores, because it is always so concerned with the question of social justice, with trying to discover why it is that some people make more money than other people.
AC: If people have a tendency to personalize, this is because it is very hard to fight against a faceless system.
AJ: It is easier to hit the streets to protest against the bankers. But it is also easy to say that we are only victims, when in fact we all play our parts in this system, in this logic.
AC: It seems hard to be outside of the system.
AJ: Yes, we all participate, for example, in the logic of competition, it is something that has completely penetrated us. We are always trying to sell ourselves, to be stronger than the others, to have success on the market. We have completely absorbed the capitalist logic, which is not natural, because, in the past, competition played a very minor role in everyday life.
AC: But don’t you think that the idea that so much depends on our abilities, and that we are not condemned to a certain place, as in a caste system, is a good thing?
AJ: Modernity is presented as a kind of liberation in relation to the feudal system, but it is only an apparent freedom, because it is a destructive logic that leads people to do everything that they can do, and to consider the world as a kind of raw material they can use to realize their own aspirations. It is true that modernism has a dynamism that previous societies lacked, but this dynamism gradually became a kind of individualism that took hold of people in the western countries.
We look after our own interests like entrepreneurs, as if we were always on the lookout for business opportunities. It is necessary to exercise in order to be in good form for work, or to go places where we can meet people who might be able to help us obtain another interesting job.
AC: But, at least theoretically, things depend more on our individual will.
AJ: The official ideology says that each person can make whatever they want of his or her life, that we are not determined by the fact that we were born in Sweden or in Africa, but in reality that is not how it is. It is not like in “Monopoly”, where everyone begins the game with the same amount of money. There is no equal opportunity.
But even if such equality were to exist, it would be necessary to ask ourselves what it is that we want to do. A reasonable society would organize a collective agreement concerning what needs to be done so that we can live well, and then it would think about how to optimize its activities with the minimum possible amount of effort, so that each person can do his part for the collective life, and then during the rest of the time devote himself to doing whatever he wants.
AC: Is there any place outside the system?
AJ: It is obvious that this situation is causing us more and more suffering. The people who work suffer, we hear more and more about suicides linked to work, there is an enormous amount of pressure in the big corporations, everyone knows that within the next year half the employees will be laid off, so then everyone works like madmen in order to please that god called the logic of profitability. And those who do not work suffer because they are socially devalued.
There is presently a wide range of initiatives underway linked to the de-growth movement, alternative economies, local barter networks, or groups seeking to return to the rural areas, exchange networks between organic producers. I have often criticized them, but I think that, at least, they show a real interest in finding a way that is not just an alternative management of the same industrial society based on money.
For a long time, the left limited itself to proposing a more just distribution of the same contents. Today, there is at least an attempt to go beyond this. But there are always other social forces that, to the contrary, continue to want to snatch the last crumb of this cake that is always getting smaller.
AC: Is capitalism dying?
AJ: The human being is very often not profitable from the system’s point of view, and this means that he is also going to be deprived of the power to consume. In Europe some money is still distributed to those who are no longer profitable, but there is also enormous pressure to cut and cut some more. There is a feeling that there are people who are superfluous from the system’s point of view. For Germany, Greece is becoming a superfluous country. And in some countries there are entire layers of the population that no longer know what to do.
AC: Governments are talking about a return to growth, everyone wants to export to the new emerging markets.
AJ: Everyone wants to export, no one wants to import. But it is not possible to have a world in which everyone exports and no one imports. What has been called the Chinese economic miracle is also based on exports, above all to the US. If the small countries enter into the liberal logic of exports, the results are catastrophic. There are countries in Africa that once produced enough to feed themselves—they lived modestly, but with enough—and that then wiped everything in the name of exports, today they only produce bananas and if the market for bananas suddenly collapses, their entire economies will collapse.
It is necessary for us to free ourselves from this idea of producing first of all for a world market.
AC: Globalization brings us closer to other cultures. If we close ourselves off in our villages….
AJ: Global mobility is very much a one-way affair. Never before in Europe were the borders as closely guarded against the outside as they are now. There is one kind of mobility for tourists, and another kind of mobility for those who have to relocate in search of work.
A return to the Nation-State is not an alternative—to me this seems to be a very dangerous ideology. A post-capitalist society must have an everyday basis in local realities; we should eat apples that are grown in the nearby orchard rather than in New Zealand. This, of course, would not prevent cultural and intellectual communication with people who live in other regions. There are people who choose to work less and reduce their material needs, organizing with others in order to enjoy a satisfying life that does not necessarily require the purchase of products or services.
AC: But you said that you were also critical of these movements. Why?
AJ: Because they think that it is enough to limit themselves to these measures. Buying our products from organic producers could be a first step.
AC: What would be the second step?
AJ: A social movement that would directly occupy the workshops and the factories. Capitalism is abandoning many productive forces, because they are no longer profitable, but they are still capable of functioning effectively.
AC: You are talking about occupations, community management, it sounds like April 25.
AJ: There is a historical memory that is worth recovering. Obviously, we are not going to start from scratch.
AC: But the system rapidly integrates these experiences.
AJ: But that does not necessarily imply that everything will happen the same way, because today the system is much weaker. Today we are living in times that are very different from the 1970s and 1980s. The system is in retreat. Those who have a place in the production-consumption cycle are constantly declining in numbers, even in the wealthiest countries. There are ever greater numbers of people who have no place in the system. If a factory was abandoned because of corporate relocation, it is possible to seize it and use it to make useful things.
AC: Such a change would require some kind of previous social conflict. It would require a large number of people.
AJ: I see another danger in such a movement—it could easily turn into a kind of management of poverty. Poverty is increasing and the State might very well give a piece of social management to this kind of alternative economy, saying: “take care of your own problems”.
It is truly a bizarre sight, for example, to see people who go to the markets and stores after they close to forage for discarded produce. This is being turned into a valorization of day-to-day survival that is absurd if it is extended to the global social level where such immense waste takes place. The idea of voluntary simplicity might pave the way for a discourse of the valorization of poverty.
AC: To create a post-capitalist system should we use previous models or is it necessary to invent everything?
AJ: Capitalism has failed to fulfill so many of its promises that we now find, among some milieus, a kind of nostalgia for a return to the past. But it is certain that we cannot go back, there is too great a risk of violent archaisms. It is clear that the solution can only be found by going forward. We can have a satisfying life with a much-reduced production in relation to what we have today.
AC: You see the ideal future as a world in which people work less, work is more rationally distributed….
AJ: … In which needs are defined, what we want to do in life and how we can do it with the least possible effort. It is necessary to begin to think on the basis of the results rather than on that of labor. Many of today’s needs are compensations for labor. A life dedicated only to labor is so unsatisfying that it is necessary to have subsequent compensations, television, cars, tourism, computer games.
AC: To what extent is this change currently taking place in politics?
AJ: When we think of politics, we think of the idea that the State must guarantee a better distribution of things. But we see that politics is not the solution, because it is structurally dependent on money. Since there is less money available for the State to distribute, the State has increasingly less power. The left, the “alter-globalists”, always call for a bigger role for the State. As if capital were the negative pole and the State the positive one. But if the State can no longer collect taxes, it no longer has anything to redistribute.
AC: Without a State, how can we guarantee protection for the most disadvantaged? Would there not be a risk that the logic of the locality would lead to village charity?
AJ: The welfare State is still very young and is already beginning to be gradually dismantled everywhere. There are many States that have practically no public services. We would only be deceiving ourselves if we think that social concerns are at the heart of the State.
AC: What kind of social organization do you advocate?
AJ: Self-organization based on the neighborhoods in the cities, small units that make the decisions concerning their own lives, and then organize on a federal level with other communities. At this time, capitalism is a house of cards that is beginning to collapse. It is not possible to say how long it will take it to fall, but the signs are becoming increasingly more evident.
Interviewed by Alexandra Prado Coelho
Translated in September 2014 from the Portuguese text published on the website of Jornal Publico under the title, “O que faremos se o sistema já não conseguir criar trabalho?”, dated April 21, 2013.